I believe that food, like a good book or a classic song, can transport you. The first time I tried Cuban cuisine, I was in sunny Florida (fittingly enough). Now, every time I taste those particular spices and ingredients, I can imagine the sunshine and blue skies, bright colors and festive décor. Who knew I could get that same feeling – and quality Cuban food – right here in South Jersey? Casona of Collingswood offers just that.
In Spanish, “casona” means large house. Conveniently located on Haddon Avenue in a grand Colonial house, Casona indeed fits its namesake. The historic building features a wraparound porch, perfect for summer dining, and original windows, side paneling, and interiors. On the inside, the ambiance is casually elegant – not as cheerful as some brightly colored Latin American restaurants, but welcoming nonetheless.
For a weekend lunch, we were promptly seated. There were only two other guests dining in the restaurant at the time, which we didn’t take as a bad sign, considering the vast array of dining options Collingswood offers. We did, however, find it odd that our service was quite slow.
We started by ordering Café Cubanos, one of our favorite discoveries in Florida. I was a little put off that the decaffeinated version was not available, despite its listing on the menu. I had a less-than-stellar version made with decaf coffee (instead of espresso), but Jamie’s full-strength, true-blue version was delicious. We then ordered beef Empanadas, which came with three delicious sauces: tomatillo sauce, salsa roja, and garlic mayonnaise. As a lover of all things mayo, the garlic mayonnaise was my favorite choice and a perfectly smooth accompaniment to the crispy and chunky empanada. Foodwise, we were off to a good start.
For my entrée, I chose the Ropa Vieja, described as pulled flank steak in a creole sauce and white rice ringed with maduros. Yum yum yum! This is a meal I would definitely go back for. The pulled steak was juicy and packed with flavor. The rice provided a good backdrop for the phenomenal steak. At first, I thought the rice could use another layer of flavor, but mixed with the steak and maduros, I found it provided a nice balance. The maduros (fried sweet plantains) added a sweet and tangy zip that complemented the dish. Overall, a standout dish, highly recommended. For $12 (lunch menu), this was a great deal. I even had enough left over for a light lunch the next day.
Jamie chose the Cuban Sandwich, a classic Cuban menu item – citrus marinated roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles, Dijon mustard, and garlic mayonnaise, with plantain chips. He enjoyed the dish, but I found the sandwich lacking. The meat was slightly dry and didn’t taste high quality to me. I usually find Cuban Sandwiches a bit greasy, like a cheesesteak, and this was no exception. Not a bad sandwich, but not the best I’ve had (which, to date, has been the Cuban from Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia). The plantain chips were strange. At first I found them blandly tasteless, but the subtly sweet crisps grew on me. They tasted extremely fresh. For under $9, it’s a large and filling (lunch) entree.
For dessert, we ordered the classic choice – caramel flan. I will admit that I am excessively picky about flan. I don’t like overly eggy versions with rough, heavy texture. I prefer flan to be perfectly smooth and light, somewhere between a pudding and custard. Casona’s fit into the former category, far too eggy for my liking. Also, for the unreasonable price, the serving was far too stingy (even if it was homemade).
All in all, this was one of the best meals I’ve had in Collingswood – as far as the food goes. I’d be remiss to neglect mentioning our capricious service. The food came out hot and fresh, but then… we were forgotten. We waited half an hour to have our water glasses refilled during our meal or our check picked up while our server chatted loudly to a friend in the adjacent room. Maybe she was having an off-day, and it certainly won’t prevent us from coming back for some more mouthwatering Latin American cuisine.