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Craving Cuban food? This Havana-born chef is serving up authentic flavors in Morro Bay

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Efren’s Mexican restaurant opened in San Luis Obispo. on March 31, 2019, marking its fourth location on the Central Coast. The restaurant serves authentic Mexican food, also at locations in Oceano, Santa Maria and Nipomo, California.

Can’t decide between pad thai and picadillo, or curries and Cubanos? There’s no need to choose thanks to the dual kitchen concept at Thai Bounty and Milanés Cuban Cuisine in Morro Bay.

Thai Bounty has been an Embarcadero favorite since opening in the shadow of the stacks on July 4, 2009. It moved south in October 2012 to its current larger location – a hexagonal building with an expansive dog-friendly patio.

Though he counts Thai food as one of his favorites, Havana-born owner Jorge Milanés has been wanting to introduce patrons to the dishes of his native Cuba for years.

He immigrated with his family in 1958 at the age of three. They landed in Miami, then relocated to southern California -- but Milanes has frequently returned to Cuba to reacquaint himself with his roots, as well as the cuisine and culture.

Milanés began offering daily Cuban lunch specials at Thai Bounty in October 2017. Since June, both the Thai and Cuban menus have been available for lunch and dinner.

As Milanés explained, the elements of Cuban food are an inviting blend of cuisines created by African, Chinese, French, Spanish and Taino (indigenous Caribbean) people. Typical ingredients include black beans, plantains, white rice, yucca, meats and seafood.

Milane’s Cuban Cafe11
Jorge Milanes is the Havana-born owner of Milanes Cuban Cafe in Morro Bay Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

“Beyond that, authentic Cuban fare relies on a deft mix of spices and herbs, preparation and technique,” Milanés said.

An essential first step is often making the sofrito, a quick sauté that imparts an underlying balance of flavor. Depending on the dish, the sofrito might include tomato, onion, green bell pepper, oregano, cumin and black pepper.

Sofrito is especially important in ropa vieja, a quintessential Cuban dish. It’s made with flank steak that’s braised, shredded into strands and mixed with vegetables and the sofrito.

Because the result supposedly resembles a pile of old clothes, ropa vieja has a moniker which doesn’t do justice to the stew’s hearty essence.

Another classic Cuban recipe is arroz con pollo. White- and dark-meat chicken is cooked with sofrito, rice, spices and criollo mojo – a sour orange and garlic sauce that gives the dish a hint of unifying zing.

1_Milane’s Cubano-Cuban Sandwich
A popular menu item at Milanes Cuban Cafe in Morro Bay is the classic Cubano-Cuban sandwich, featuring marinated roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickles and mustard pressed panini-style on Cuban bread. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Criollo mojo is also used as a marinade for bistec de palomilla, a thinly pounded sirloin steak, and lechon asado, pork shoulder that’s slowly oven-roasted in the marinade for about six hours.

Many people are familiar with Cubanos — panini-like sandwiches of meats, cheese, pickles and mustard.

Developed by Cuban workers in Florida, the exact city of origin remains under heated debate. Several options are available at Milanés, from the traditional roasted pork and ham, to the Cali-Cubano with avocado, to the Tampa with added Genoa salami.

All sandwiches are served with a combination of mariquitas, or, plantain chips, and yucca chips. Other sides include tostones (sliced, mashed and fried green plantains) and maduros (fried sweet plantains). Of course, black beans and rice are available — separately or combined as “moros y cristianos.”

“If you grew up on this food, you’ll know the essence of the Cuban taste,” Milanés said. “I’ve been happily humbled by several of my customers of Cuban heritage getting emotional, even actually tearing up because my food takes them back. That’s priceless, and means the world to me.”

Milane’s Cuban Cafe06
Milanes Cuban Cafe is located on the Embarcadero in Morro Bay. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

In additional to the regular menu, Milanés hopes to do more special events on the patio, especially those featuring his specialty – a whole pig roasted in a metal box known as “la caja China.” He custom-built his own “la caja Milanés” 40 years ago, and became known for his El Cubano catering company long before he opened Thai Bounty.

Milanés lived in the Napa Valley for 25 years before moving to the Central Coast; he worked as the utilities manager for the Los Osos Community Service District from 1999 to 2009. While in Napa, he catered whole roasted pig events for such wineries as Trefethen Family Vineyards and Chateau Montelena.

Locally, his most notable catering jobs were for Juan de Marcos of “Buena Vista Social Club” fame and the Afro-Cuban Allstars when they played the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo in 2001, and the Cuban American Alliance’s Fiesta Cubano celebration in Cayucos in 2003.

“With events like those, there’s a lot of nostalgia, and a lot of family pride,” Milanés recalled.

5_Milane’s Arroz con Pollo
At Milanes Cuban Cafe in Morro Bay, arroz con pollo features tender, white-meat chicken seasoned with Cuban spices and criollo mojo sauce, and cooked with rice. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Milanés Cuban Cuisine (and Thai Bounty)

560 Embarcadero, Morro Bay

805-772-2500 or thaibountymorrobay.com/milanes, thaibountymorrobay.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m daily

The scene: This casual Embarcadero restaurant offers seating indoors and outdoors on the expansive dog-friendly patio.

The cuisine: Both authentic Cuban and Thai menus are offered for lunch and dinner; local wines and draft beer available.

Expect to spend: $14 to $23 at Milanés Cuban Cuisine, $12 to $25 at Thai Bounty.

Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at ktbudge@sbcglobal.net.
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