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A Week of Lunches

Five excuses to skip the brown bag routine and actually leave your desk.


(page 1 of 3)

In these degenerate times, I often find myself eating at my desk. My own cooking, even microwaved the next day, seems preferable to a lot of the food my younger co-workers go out and purchase.

Then I drew this assignment: Eat lunch out every day for a week, downtown. Sounded like I could handle it. I skipped the usual suspects: the steak (or even better, the lamb shanks) at Murphy’s, the buffet at Indigo. No, I was going to have a different midday culinary adventure the whole week through.

* * * *

Soul de Cuba Café
1121 Bethel St. // 545-2822
Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
No parking, major credit cards

Forget mojitos, that trendy Cuban cocktail. Honolulu’s only Cuban restaurant also serves the traditional drink of Brazil, the caipirinha.

“Since when do we drink at lunch? On a Monday?” said the friend who’d joined me.

Exceptional circumstances, I argued. “This is a caipirinha made with real cachaça, not vodka.” Cachaça is distilled from sugar-cane juice, not molasses, like rum. It’s heady stuff. Combined with fresh lime wedges and a little sugar, it’s a samba in a glass.

“Whoa,” said my friend when he tasted it. “There goes the afternoon.”

Photo by Ryan Siphers

And what to drink with this fricase de pollo? A caipirinha, of course.

I’d tried Soul de Cuba when it opened last year, and been put off by both the small portions and the outrageously tame flavors, especially for a Caribbean cuisine.

Perhaps our experience was colored by the caipirinhas, but, this time, we managed to enjoy lunch. On the sampler platter of aperitivos, what went first were the grilled shrimp, in a black bean sauce with a touch of heat, a seriously accomplished dish.

Then we sat and stared at the devil crab. Not deviled crab. A crab-vegetable mix had been deep-fried inside a croquette that was pointed at both ends. Cut in half and set upright on the plate, it looked like devil’s horns.

The croquette batter was so heavy, this dish reminded me of a corn dog. But it tasted fine, especially with the salt-chili-vinegar dip. The dip beat the pants off the orange sauce on the ho-hum empanadas, which tasted like a mix of mayo and catsup.

For some reason, we both wanted to try the sopa de garbanzo. Improbably, this turned out to be good—a powerful chicken broth flavored with sautéed chorizo, simmered with whole garbanzos.

After all that, prudence would have suggested ordering only a single entrée. But at the outset of the meal, we’d asked the waitress which two platillos principales she would order. The ropa viejo and the fricase de pollo. The chicken fricassee was two small, not particularly distinguished chicken thighs. But the chicken was marinated in garlic, citrus, onion, bell pepper, and bay leaves, and simmered in with tomato sauce and olives. This lit up our mouths.

Unlike the ropa viejo, a shredded beef dish whose name means “old clothes.” Ropa viejo is supposed to be suffused with sofrito—an olive oil paste with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, garlic, cumin, oregano and bay.

No. “It’s like the kitchen ran out of flavor when they got to this dish,” said my friend. We didn’t eat much of it. I took it home, sautéed it with shallots, doctored it up with red and black pepper, and cooked it with eggs and shredded cheese, but that’s a whole other story.

Taken by the plantains that came with the entrées, my friend ordered house-made plantain “butter rum” ice cream. He pronounced it fabulous, I thought it was just sweet. I was tempted to order another caipirinha, but sanity prevailed.

Lunch was $84 with tip. We ordered more food than two people should eat, since I took home a whole entrée in a clam shell. Warning: caipirinhas cost $8. You shouldn’t be drinking at lunch, anyway. Leave it to the professionals.

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