Mucho Gusto Café
A cool little Cuban place with both the kitsch and the kitchen to make up
for the lack of . . . lard?
1124 Boylston Street (Fenway) Boston; 236-1020
Open daily for lunch, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
dinner served Thurs - Sat till 10 p.m.
No credit cards
Beer and wine
By Robert Nadeau
I like to joke that I am the last communist, not only because of my lingering
dream of a society more gallant toward pregnant teenagers, but also because two
of my very favorite things are Szechuan food and Afro-Cuban music. Of course it
has to be said that the most conservative side of communism is what has so
fostered these two wonderful arts. Indeed, most great eating comes from a
deeply conservative enterprise -- recapturing the flavors of childhood.
Gourmandise is culture-bound, backward, nationalistic, chauvanistic -- and when
it doesn't lust for the delicacies of the palace, it embraces the most
reactionary attitudes of the peasantry. There is a progressive side to great
eating, but you have to plow through a lot of Pringles and Pop-Tarts to get to
something good, like genetically sweetened corn.
So while Miami salsa music is bland by comparison to Castro's songo,
Cuban-American food can be terrific. For the traditional stuff, it's
worth a field trip to El Oriental de Cuba, in Jamaica Plain. Mucho Gusto, on
the hip block among the various buildings of Berklee College, features a
charming blend of modernized Cuban food, unaccented bilingualism, old mambo
records, and barely collectible kitsch of the I Love Lucy school of
Cubanismo. The latter verges on camp -- pottery figures of black folks with
head scarves and conga drums -- but also partakes of a more genuine affection
for the culture of the '50s.
What holds it all together is the personal warmth and involvement of the
co-owner, Oswaldo/Ozzie, who greets every patron and jumps into every little
service gap that might arise in a new restaurant.
Although Mucho Gusto isn't a "great restaurant," it's more fun than a lot of
great restaurants, and it has a couple of great dishes. One is a little
marinated-eggplant salad currently only available at dinner. Another is
french-fried onions, a dish that seldom has much flavor beyond the grease and
On the Cuban classics, Mucho Gusto wins everywhere you don't need lard. Their
black-bean soup ($2.50, $3) is unconventionally puréed but classically
spiced, with cumin and garlic to lighten up the beans. It's filling and warming
without being a guilty pleasure. The Cuban sandwich ($4.50 at lunch, $7.50 at
dinner) is slices of ham and roast pork (probably lean fresh ham) in a grilled
sandwich with mustard and cheese. The evening version brings a double handful
of very good french fries, and the superlative onion strings -- unbreaded, with
just enough crispy parts, onion flavor balancing the ecstasies of oil and
The problem of too little lard surfaces in the rice and beans ($3, $5, and a
side dish on dinner entrées). The rice of one early evening was already
a little hardened; the beans were soupy enough to moisten it, but lacked
sabor. You can make tasty Caribbean beans without much fat, by frying a
lot of aromatics in a very little canola oil for the initial sofrito,
but you can't simply toss the lard can and get the real beans. Another
approach, more Mexican than Cuban, is to reach for the "House Recipe" hot sauce
bottle. It's quite fiery -- start with a couple drops and stir them in well.
I dunno, Maud. These restaurant snobs are getting weirder every year. This
one says a place needs to use more lard. And if they don't get the lard in, he
says to put hot sauce on it.Next thing he's going back to overcooked vegetables
with gloopy gravy on top, you mark my words.
Ropa vieja ($19 with soup, salad, and dessert) is likewise a somewhat
sanitized version of the classic beef stew cooked until the meat falls to
shreds. It was devised as a means of tenderizing lean, stringy beef; the name
"old clothes" refers to the way stiff, homespun clothing likewise had to be
tenderized. So lard restored some moisture, and aromatics restored some flavor.
I'm suggesting a treatment more like what I suspect goes into the accompanying
soup, ajiaco. This vegetarian soup-stew depends on a variety of starches
(potato, corn on the cob, plantain, malanga) to thicken an aromatic broth to
about the level of New England pea soup. A bowl of this would make an excellent
lunch for a big, hungry vegetarian.
And though lard also adds flavor to deep-fried foods, we've mostly become
accustomed to the cleaner taste imparted by lighter frying oils. This pays off
for Mucho Gusto, which has a long list of fried delights. We attacked broadside
the house sampler ($7, $12), of which the smaller will appetize about four
people. It included the french fries of yucca root ($3); thin "potato chips" of
malanga ($3); slices of the Caribbean-style unfilled tamale ($5); tostones
($3), flattened diskes of twice-fried green plantain; and maduros ($3), which
are once-fried sweet-ripe plantains. These fries, especially the yucca and
malanga numbers, were as fresh and as dry-fried and as naturally flavored as I
have ever had them.
The larger sampler gets you into the non-vegetarian fried items, such as the
sweet plantain balls stuffed with hamburger ($5). Or the superlative
croquetas ($7) of puréed ham and cheese, or the empanadas ($5),
turnovers of savory dough filled with sautéed minced beef.
A modest list of beers and wines makes this a true café, but don't
forget the coffee part. Café con leche ($1.50) is served like a
Starbucks macchiato, with espresso coffee underneath a blanket of steamed milk.
The roasted flavor of the milk complements the coffee, and I never mind the
compulsory sugar. You can linger over dense almond cookies, macaroons, rice
pudding (mine kinda chewy), pound cake moistened with syrup, guava pastele
(guava jam between layers of shortbread-like cake) -- you get the idea. These
desserts, all between $1 and $2, aren't worth crossing the street for, but
since you're already sitting in Mucho Gusto, pleasantly full of yucca fries,
sipping on strong coffee, they are delightful and a cheap way to enjoy
another 10 or 15 minutes of the fantasy.
A word about the music. Two words, actually. Mambo Kings. Even when the track
is a street rumba or a soupy bolero, it evokes Havana of the '50s. The
décor evokes Americans who might have visited Havana in the 50s. Salud!