The Cuban food crisis

It’s the end of the month and therefore another installment of Travels with Frenchie, the monthly food series in which a trio of culturally mismatched San Antonians explores the local hinterland in search of dining adventure. As always, the culinary vice squad consisted of: Frenchie (aka Fabien Jacob, celebrated local sommelier), Carlos the Bike Mechanic (aka Carlos Montoya, a man who eats only obscure fruits and grilled meats), and me (a former vegan and known taco truck stalker). For our guest this month, we were joined by Zulcoralis Rodriguez, a friend from the downtown cycling scene and no stranger to good Puerto Rican cuisine.

A few weeks back, I got lost heading out on Rittiman Road and ended up in the Converse/Judson area. I noticed something unusual — a sprawling brick warehouse with a taco truck-looking vehicle outside, and a sign advertising Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican food inside.

Always on the lookout to discover the next gem (perhaps another Moroccan Bites or Little Jamaica Foods), this seemed like a reasonable roll of the dice, especially with the mysterious combination of cuisines. We went back to R Place Café a week later with low expectations and high curiosity.

A few steps inside the cafe and reality quickly reasserted itself — like stepping into a freezing morning shower. From the outside the space looked huge, but once inside it felt claustrophobic and somewhat funereal. Celia Cruz doesn’t need to be pumping out of the stereo, but a sense of life is preferable. We weren’t sure what happened to all the extra square footage. Maybe there was some sort of import/export business lurking on the other side of the kitchen. The interior may have been uninspiring but whatever — if the food and experience is good then that’s all that matters.

And then came the second hit. We were told we could only order the buffet, which wasn’t exactly luring me closer. We asked about ordering some Cuban or Puerto Rican specialties from the menu to get a crack at what we hoped to be their best and/or most interesting items. That flew like a lead balloon. So, it looked like we were having the buffet. After a ceremonial walk around the buffet, nothing was really passing the eye or nose test. But Carlos, an eternal optimist with an insane appetite, plowed straight ahead, filling his plate with charro beans, Spanish rice, pollo deshebrado, congri, maduras, arroz con gandules, and picadillo.

Congri, a Cuban dish with rice and dark red beans, was appreciated more than some of the other items but also criticized for an unappealing texture and not having a dark enough color. The maduras (sautéed ripe plantains) were rubbery and flaccid. No one thought much of the Spanish rice or the picadillo or arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). Carlos and I enjoyed the flavor of the pollo deshebrado the most, but in truth, it was too salty and dry.

So in the end we weren’t exactly sure what to make of everything. Was this a fusion of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican cuisines? The consensus was no. At least not one to get excited about. We felt that most of the dishes were actually more Mexican based, if not in name, in delivery. But we were told the owners are Cuban.

I understand serving only Cuban food might be a hard sell in San Antonio. But if Tex-Mex isn’t your specialty, then that seems like a worse choice. There really isn’t a great Cuban option in town right now. A quick perusal on Urban Spoon (for whatever it’s worth) shows two options: Azuca and Bruno’s. Azuca has a great pan Latin American menu but isn’t strictly Cuban. And Bruno’s, based on my last visit, is like a ghost of a restaurant, suggesting that their busier days are behind them. Given that, I think R Café should perfect its Cuban menu and try to make a name that way.

For the moment, the Cuban food crisis continues. •

R Place Café
9260 FM 78
Converse, TX 78109
(210) 658-2748
(call for hours)

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