"Sometimes a new restaurant makes it hard to root for the little guy. The first time I stopped in at TaTa Cuban Café, a wee Cuban sandwich shop just steps from the Indiana Statehouse on Market Street, things were, to say the least, a little rough. Sure, they had only been open a couple of weeks, but the largely Spanish-speaking staff seemed baffled by our orders, indicating we should select our lunches by number, not by the names of the sandwiches — even when we really tried to use our high school Spanish (forgive us, Señora Fernandez!).
Requests for salads, appetizers and desserts required more pointing than even at the most obscure of eateries. Nothing we could do — no pantomime or pouting — could get a waitress to bring us dressing for a bizarre salad ($6.99) topped with corn kernels, raisins, tomatoes and olives. Desserts seemed less than fresh; bread pudding had a funky flavor of cheap margarine.
But at least the Cuban sandwich ($8.50) was good. Hot and crisp, with good ham and plenty of tender, slow roasted pork, this rivaled the best we had eaten. Crisp pickles, a good tang of yellow mustard and not too much cheese — why, this could be the classic worker’s lunch in Miami or Key West, minus the palm trees and beaches.
Just as good was the ropa vieja sandwich ($8.45), the same soft roll stuffed with the classic Caribbean dish of shredded skirt steak that translates as “old clothes.” Rich, smoky and slightly tangy with just a bit of heat from green chiles, this was more evidence that, for all the months Indianapolis had spent waiting for its first real Cuban restaurant, a few things were being perfected.
Sadly, even these were not as good the second time around, much to the chagrin of a different pair of friends I dragged along. Just what was this shoe leather pork doing in the Cuban? And did we really think that a citrus and cumin mojo marinade on the bistec de higado bayate ($7.99) would keep beef liver from having that gamey flavor we remembered from childhood liver and onions? What had I thought was so great about this place?
Fortunately, our question about the pork was answered when a friendly manager came around to ask if everything was to our satisfaction. When pressed, he admitted they’d run out of the slow-roasted stuff — we’d arrived after 2 p.m. — and resorted to grilling up some pork to put on the sandwiches. He dashed off to fetch a few steaming slices off a new batch fresh from the oven. Succulent, almost melting, and clearly basted with spices and fruit juices to the point of being caramel dark with a surprisingly crisp surface, this could certainly redeem any restaurant on a bad day.
Thus, my desire to proclaim TaTa Cuban Café, despite its shortcomings, as “the” place to get a Cuban sandwich or “Cubano” needs a caveat: TaTa’s is the place to get a great Cubano, but only if you arrive early and only if you ask if the pork is sliced off the roast.
Of course, the Cuban isn’t the “only” thing you can get here. Most of the extras come from a case at the counter. The shrimp cocktail Veradero ($5) is refreshing and light — if not exactly overflowing with seafood—in what we figured was watermelon juice with tomatoes and spices. The pollo mojo sandwich ($7.99) has a generous filling of juicy, well-spiced chicken with onions and peppers — a very respectable lunch alternative in a sea of fast-food joints downtown. All sandwiches come with a somewhat limp pickle and a handful of wheat “pallets,” wagon wheel-shaped crisps. Desserts, which appear to come from a local Latin bakery, can be a bit dry to the American palate, but they’re good with café con leche ($2.55).
When you consider this place is just getting started, it’s not hard to hope it will make a go of it and be a fun place to eat. The colorful storefront decorated modestly with photographs of Cuban life is definitely a peaceful retreat from city stress, with Cuban jazz and a plasma screen TV playing, alternatively, recent movies or steamy footage of Caribbean culture. Starting in December, TaTa will start offering live Cuban music and mojitos — two soothers that can help excuse the foibles of any new restaurant trying to find its stride.
Tata Cuban Café
137 W. Market St.
Monday-Friday: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Recommended dishes: Cubano, ropa vieja and pollo mojo sandwiches