The fried cow at Rosa Blanca was deliciously familiar. This twice-cooked strip of tender skirt steak - a.k.a. vaca frita - was buttery-soft from a garlicky braise, but also crispy from a pan-fried finish that crystallized all those spices (cinnamon, allspice, star anise) into the flesh. With lime-tanged onions to perk its savor, followed by an earthy forkful of black bean moros rice, it was irresistible.
And it took me straight back to the summer of 2001, when I first raved about a vaca frita at Alma de Cuba cooked by a still-unknown 29-year-old chef de cuisine. His name? Jose Garces. And the talent was obvious then. Who could have foretold his future success?
As I sat beneath the turning fans of what is now his 16th restaurant, nibbling empanadas as Cuban jazz echoed off the checkerboard floor in a dinerlike space washed with cheery Miami teal, some seeds of doubt nonetheless crept into my mind.
Had the Latin maestro - now a national star - loosened his golden grip?
The bow-tied servers were overprogrammed and stiff (except for my last). The 70-label rum list is extensive, but the mojitos lacked punch. I'd had many good flavors, but a signature here - a classic Cubano sandwich soon after opening - wasn't stellar, the bread too dry from its press.
And Rosa Blanca's bilevel space, a hasty retrofit of the now-closed Chifa, has too many personalities to feel coherent. Most of the design went into the brightly-lit Little Havana diner up front, which smartly caters to the daytime hours when this location feels most energetic. At night, it feels as real as a stage set, backed by a dark rear dining room with booths cloistered in wrought iron, a kitschy homestyle parlor for parties in the basement, where there's also a loungelike Siberia for spillover patrons, and where I ate my first dinner. The hodgepodge is an apt metaphor for a diverse Garces empire that may be juggling more concepts than it can master.
His 17th, Volvér, opened in the Kimmel Center on Wednesday to fanfare appropriate for a project of extreme ambition and expense, a haute cuisine gambit to prove he's still a hands-on culinary king. The calculation is the polar opposite at Rosa Blanca. The lunch-centric spot, built on pressed sandwiches, a batido bar, and sub-$20 entrées, is about old-school roots (Garces' wife, Beatriz, is Cuban-born) and perhaps reestablishing soulful Latin-cooking cred.
And for the most part, on that count, it succeeds. Under chef de cuisine Jose Olmeada, a former Tinto sous who took over not long after that first disappointing Cubano, the quality of these classics is all that's needed to justify Rosa Blanca's existence, especially in an area where such specialties are rare.
The savory empanadas are a highlight, made daily with heat-blistered skins for the fried turnovers, and flaky shells for the baked. I loved the white ricotta-mozz that oozes from a sheer band of Serrano ham in the jamón. The beef picadillo with capers and green olives was a zesty delight, as were the tender shreds of chicken ropa vieja with peppers and cilantro.
The croquetas are far more creamy and flavorful inside than most I've tasted on North Philly's Golden Mile, the ham filling's béchamel smoky with pork stock and chunks of meat. The frituritas de bacalao are fantastic fish tots that retain just enough of the salt-cod's funk, with a smoked garlic aioli dip that's creamy and sweet.
There are some Chifa legacy dishes that had mixed success. I'm addicted to the cheesy pan de bono yucca buns, still among the best freebie starters in town. But the Peruvian-style ceviche with corn nuts was uninspired. Ditto for the Distrito-esque guacamole, feebly Cubanized with smoked pineapple and root-veggie chips that were too brittle to actually scoop. The grilled octopus also could have been on any Garces menu, but it was so tender, in tangy tomato escabeche, that I won't complain.
Rosa Blanca is at its best when embracing its Cuban comida soul. The ropa vieja was stewed to brisket silk, profound with a subtle molasses sweetness and sneaky red fresno chili spice. Flavorful cubes of pork-shoulder masitas were intense with savory adobo seasoning, practically melting on the tongue. The garlicky roast chickens, meanwhile, are among the most flavorful in town, dripping oregano and achiote-tinted essence down from the spit onto baby potatoes that turn yellow with flavor. With a crock of perfect black beans and rice on the side, it's a satisfying value for $18.
The curried lamb could be a new favorite if the kitchen dialed back some of the raw heat that overwhelmed the aromatic Caribbean spice of its coconut milk-rum gravy. And I've already seen significant improvement in the Cubanos, as recent adjustments to the high-tech presses stopped drying out the bread, instead leaving a ridge-pressed crust with a shattering, buttery crispness. The layered ingredients inside still need a touch more delicacy and distinction - but this is clearly a menu in forward progress.
Pastry queen Jessica Mogardo's sweets are mostly already a hit, from her splendid chocolate-banana twist on tres leches to the pasteles filled with guava and cheese. But desserts at Rosa Blanca may be best sipped, from the authentic trigo batido shake made from puffed wheat cereal (breakfast through a straw!) to the clever Malta India float, which replaces root beer with funky caramel Caribbean soda.
It was just foaming up over dulce de leche ice cream when Garces himself ambled out of the kitchen past our basement table, pretending to look natural. The weight of expectations from his ever-expanding empire was almost visible on his broad 41-year-old shoulders - no longer those of the unknown talented kid.
But if my imperfect meals at Rosa Blanca prove anything, it's that the original essence of his genius - great cooking - still beats at the heart of his every move.
Chef de cuisine Jose Olmeada talks about Rosa Blanca at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.