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Review: Cuban with a side of Yelp help

Juana La Cubana has attracted a cult following with odd location, sweet story and tame flavors.

 

★★½

Old saying: If your shoeshine guy starts giving out stock tips, it's time to get out of the market. New version: If an Uber-driving friend passes along a Yelp hot spot that has tourists flocking, be wary.

Not that Juana La Cubana Café is bad. It's a charming, family-run luncheonette in a hard-to-find spot with a sweet back story. It has some decent food, with good meats and fish offered at reasonable prices.

But it's not one of the best restaurants in Broward County, as the crowd-sourced Yelp review site might lead you to believe (it's been ranked as high as No. 4). And there are other Cuban spots around that have bolder flavors.

For whatever reason — perhaps because of its offbeat location in the clubhouse of a Dania Beach mobile-home community — the restaurant has become a cult hit.

My advice if you want to check it out: Turn on your GPS, and bring a packet of seasoning.

"We're trying to maintain the authenticity. All the recipes have been passed down from my grandparents, but we had to dial back a little bit," says owner Antonio "Tony" Lopez, who runs the place with his brother Oscar and mother, Maria Coya. "We're just listening to our audience."

My takeaway after two meals over a recent weekend: It's Cuban cuisine for modern, health-conscious tastes and timid American tourists. That means less spice, less fat and a bit less flavor than I'm used to in South Florida.

But there's still plenty of family love and soul here. The family patriarch, Manuel Coya, was born outside Havana and fled Cuba in the early 1960s, soon after the Castro revolution. He went to New York, Miami and then Guatemala City, where in 2002 he opened Juana La Cubana restaurant. When he got sick with cancer earlier this decade, he sold the restaurant and moved back to South Florida with the family for treatment.

Tony Lopez found the low-overhead location and opened Juana La Cubana Café in fall 2013. (The name is taken from a famous Cuban song, and Lopez says customers have started calling Maria "Juana.")

"We're doing the best we can with what we have," Lopez says. "It's a small place, with a small kitchen. That limits what we can do."

It means they can't make everything in-house, but they still put together tasty breakfasts and lunch. For example, the Cuban sandwich ($7.95 small) has house-roasted pork but commercial ham. It's fine, but not exceptional. They are able to make a nice housemade Cuban bread pudding for dessert ($3.25), a dense piece of sweetened bread flecked with fruit, raisins and nuts.

I figured I had to check out Juana La Cubana after my Uber-driving friend told me how he made an airport pickup and the group from Alabama made a beeline for the place, raving about it. He was confounded by the locale.

Getting there is half the fun, sort of an urban equivalent of trying to find the No Name Pub in Big Pine Key. It's in the clubhouse of the Estates of Fort Lauderdale, which is actually in Dania Beach. You think you're in the middle of a maze and hopelessly lost, driving by double-wide homes when — bam! — you see the clubhouse and a flapping banner with the Juana La Cubana logo.

The easiest way to get there: From Stirling Road, head north on North Park Road, turn left on Southwest 54th Street, and it's about a half mile down on the left.

Once inside, you'll get a warm welcome from Tony or Maria, Oscar will be working the small, four-burner stove and grill behind the counter, and you'll grab one of the six inside tables (there are three tables outside).

Order a cafecito or cortadito (the Cuban coffee is strong and good, not tampered down), and admire the walls filled with adoring scrawls from visitors. The wall-writing concept comes from Bodeguita del Medio, a famous Havana eatery popular with artists and writers who left messages, and Tony's dad had customers do the same at his Guatemala restaurant.

Tostones rellenos ($8.95) are a good way to start: fried green plantains molded into little cups that are filled with picadillo, simmered ground beef with wine and olives. I jazzed it up with the house green sauce, a mix of avocado, cilantro, scallions and jalapenos. (There is no bottled hot sauce on the tables, but if you ask, they'll bring you tins of red and green sauce from the kitchen).

I liked the vaca frita sandwich ($10.75), stretched, marinated and fried flank steak topped with fried onions that was among the most flavorful of the offerings. Pernil ($10.50), a roast pork entrée that's marinated overnight in sour orange juice, lime and spices then baked for six hours, was tender but too lean and bland. The marinade didn't penetrate the meat. I threw on some vinegar-based hot sauce and salt. Chicken fricassee ($10.75) featured boneless dark thigh meat, which added richness, but the tomato-peppers-caper sauce still came up a little light on flavor.

The rice was nice, but the black beans were thin and soupy, with traces of sliced canned green olives but hardly any onion or garlic. Tony says he cut out pork fat from the beans to make them healthier.

Who eats Cuban to be healthy? Yelpers from Alabama, I guess.

Read Mike Mayo's dining blog at SouthFlorida.com/eatbeat. mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Instagram: @mikemayoeats

Juana La Cubana Cafe

2850 SW 54th St., Dania Beach (in Estates of Fort Lauderdale clubhouse)

954-985-8899, JuanaLaCubana.com

Cuisine: Cuban

Cost: Inexpensive

Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (closed Mondays). Breakfast served until 11:45 a.m.

Reservations: No

Credit cards: All major

Bar: No alcohol

Sound level: Conversational

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free lot

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