Go south of the border for a little food from the tropics. Cuba de Ayer is in Burtonsville, one exit south of the Howard County line, and it offers a casual taste of traditional Cuban dishes.
Inside, the restaurant is brightly-painted with nice art and friendly waitresses. More modern than "old Cuban." But the menu includes the standards -- picadillo, roasted pork, and the shredded beef fish "ropa vieja" toped off with flan, tres leches and both cafe cubano and cafe con leche.
On a Saturday afternoon, we had sandwiches -- the roast pork sandwich and the Cuban sandwich with ham, pork, cheese and pickles pressed on a baguette -- with sweet plantains and a side order of mixed beans and rice (moros y cristianos). From the first forkfuls of the side dishes, I knew it would be delicious. They were flavorful without being greasy. Sweet plantains that cut with a fork, but stayed intact on the plate. Rice and beans subtly spiced, but mostly just earthy and filling.
Beyond sandwiches, Cuba de Ayer offers an array of main courses, specials, and even drinks like mojitos and fruity cocktails. Other nights, we have enjoyed a shrimp special and other dishes. In the end, the Cuban sandwich is still my favorite -- crisp bread, salty ham, a little bit of cheese and pickles. I also loved the tres leches dessert. A slice of cake magically soaked in condensed, goat and cow milks and topped with cream. The tres leches is my favorite kind of dessert -- sweet, but somehow flavorful instead of cloying. The texture is spectacular. It still tastes like cake, but it is moist without dissolving into a pudding.
Don't be put off by the ride down Rte 29 or by the outside of the shopping center. That stretch of Rte 198 has a coffee house that sells Ethopioan food, and branches of both Rita's and Maiwand Kabob. You also stop at the Dutch Country Farmers Market.
If you like Cuba de Ayer, click here for the 2009 "best restaurants" in Howard County.
Cuba de Ayer
15446 Old Columbia Pike (Rte 198)
Burtonsville, MD 20866
NEAR: This is on Rte 198 just west of Rte 29. From Howard County, you take the first exit on Rte 29 south of the river. That exit puts you on an old piece of Rte 29 that passes an Indian temple and a garden center. Turn right on Rte 198 at the traffic light. Cuba de Ayer is a block up on the right. There is a sign.