Hidden gem: La Cubana's family-forward vibe sets it apart from the rest

Roncey fave La Cubana’s vibe rivals its sandwiches for reasons to visit.

Roncey fave La Cubana’s vibe rivals its sandwiches for reasons to visit.

(Source: Instagram, @lacubana_to)

Those who set foot inside Toronto restaurant La Cubana, will note its distinct decor. Seafoam tiles line the walls, light boxes with red painted letters announce the diner's dishes. Instagrammers often take shoefies—pictures of their shoes—featuring the restaurant's colourful floor, composed of custom painted handmade tiles from Mexico.

This is exactly what chef and owner Corinna Mozo wanted when she envisioned a Cuban diner: a neighbourhood spot that felt just like the one her grandfather's diner in Camaguey, Cuba.

But while the tiles are impressive, it's the kid-friendly and flavourful vibe that keep La Cubana a destination for young families and locals in the west-end Toronto neighbourhood of Roncesvalles (or Roncey to locals).

"We are always really family-friendly and make sure that kids are very welcomed here," Mozo says. "I want those kids to grow up and be like, 'I've always been to La Cubana' and keep coming as they grow up."

She says that La Cubana is a perfect place for families because parents can have a cocktail or beer and the kids are happy. "Kids are really revered in Cuba," she says, adding that staff are trained with the emphasis on providing good service to guests, but especially kids.

Although Mozo is a veteran chef and a mother for two children, La Cubana is the first casual, family restaurant she has run. She was raised in Montreal and  trained at Stratford Chef's School before making her way through some of Boston's most popular fine dining restaurants. Ultimately, Mozo stayed stateside for 14 years and when she returned to Canada, she landed in Toronto and opened the revered French restaurant, Delux—one of the first restaurants on the popular Ossington Avenue strip.

Although she defined the Delux menu as "French Country," she slowly slid some Cuban dishes into the menu, most notably, her Cuban sandwich which popped up on the menu alongside French bistro classics like roast chicken and crème brûlée.

The popularity of the dish and her desire to try something new led Mozo to open La Cubana. It's here she feels that the food most reflects her as a chef, even if it's not traditional Cuban food.

"Some Cuban people come in and say it's not authentic Cuban food but it's the food that I've grown up with. On top of that, I trained as a chef so I've changed a few things," she says.

"The Cuban sandwich is my signature dish, but it's not a classic Cubano. It's supposed to be served on a more soft elongated bread but I developed my own bread that I really think it elevates my sandwich." Instead of Swiss cheese and dill pickles, Mozo uses gruyere and cornichons—callbacks to her French training. For those new to Cuban cuisine, Mozo warns that contrary to popular impression, Cuban food is not spicy. "Think tropical flavours: cassava, avocados, sweet plantains,guava, coconuts and lots of molasses."

The menu at La Cubana features sandwiches like the Cubano but also medianoche which in Spanish translates into "midnight buns."

"In the 1950s, you'd come out of the theatres around midnight and vendors would be out selling smaller sandwiches so that's where the name comes from," Mozo explains.

Like with all restaurant's breads, Mozo developed the medianoche buns, soft with a touch of sweetness similar to challah.

At La Cubana, they're topped with glazed pork belly, or a vegetarian combo of avocado, tomato and queso. Also on offer are the Cuban plates which are generous platters of protein like the molasses-roasted pork shoulder, guava BBQ beef short rib or grilled fish with pineapple salsa. They're all served with a heaping scoop of rice and beans, vinegary coleslaw and tostones (fried plantain).

La Cubana has become so popular that Mozo closed Delux and opened a second location in its place. There, the clientele is more reflective of that hip neighbourhood. There are fewer families, more working professionals and the emphasis there is on takeout. In the back where Delux's private dining room once sat, is Bar Havana, La Cubana's version of a cozy Cuban cocktail bar.

Now a Toronto resident for 10 years, Mozo says the city's appreciation for multiculturalism and different flavours is one of the reasons why La Cubana is so successful.

"As far as different cultures, it is very advanced in Toronto. I never stopped to question whether a Cuban restaurant would be successful here," she says. "It's an amazing diverse city."

La Cubana, 392 Roncesvalles Ave, Toronto, ON M6R 2M9 and 92 Ossington Ave, Toronto, ON M6J 2Z4