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Believe it or not, 20 years ago, there was not much Cuban cuisine in the Sarasota food scene. You had to travel to Miami to get authentic Cuban family cooking. But the Suncoast now boasts several delicious venues, with some hidden off-menu true Cuban drinks and secret specials. These four restaurants will get you as close to Havana as possible without leaving Sarasota:

Rincon Cubano

1756 N. Honore Ave., Sarasota, (941) 706-3472, rinconcubanosarasota.com

About as authentic as it can get, Rincon offers all the original Cuban dishes we can think of, including fried fried yuca with a mojo dipping sauce, nine varieties of Cuban sandwiches and the jibarito, an amazing play on a steak sandwich made with thin beef and lettuce, tomato and cheese bundled between fried yuca patties as the bun. Empanadas, black bean soup and daily specials make this a go-to destination. It also houses a full bar and hosts live music.

JR’s Old Packinghouse Cafe

987 S. Packinghouse Road, Sarasota, (941) 371-9358, packinghousecafe.com

JR’s is about to celebrate 20 years in business at what used to be an old packing facility for nearby celery farmers, and has recently added a full bar, which means it can make some beyond tasty mojitos. The restaurant is known for its mojo pork, marinated with love and citrus for two to three days before being roasted. The menu also includes melt-in-your mouth ropa vieja nachos, picadillo beef with black beans and rice and several Cuban lunch specials under $9, plus a delicious flan.

Cafe Havana

1440 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton, (941) 751-9287, thecafehavana.com

A Bradenton staple, head here for a Cuban breakfast of croquettes and café con leche. Lunch and dinner specials are very inexpensive and include plantains, beans or yuca. Monday lunch and dinner specials include flavorful selections like Spanish meatballs with black beans and rice, Cuban toast, albondigas with black beans and more. Paella for two needs to be preordered, and it is abundant—a wonderful classic to share.

Mirna’s Cuban Cuisine

7980 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, (941) 316-9793, mirnascubancuisine.com

Start with a fruit shake and empanadas at this little Cuban spot. The inside makes you feel like you are in Havana and the cooking backs it up. Order papas rellenas as another appetizer; it is prepared with seasoned mashed potatoes, ground beef, diced peppers, cilantro and onions. Favorite entrées include the puerco asado, made with marinated pork roasted and topped with grilled onions. My favorite sides are the yellow rice and plantains. Desserts include Cuban rice pudding and, of course, a Cuban coffee. Unique to Mirna’s is the opportunity to order whole Cuban cakes for special occasions.

Cuban Flan

Ingredients

½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon water
1 whole egg
5 egg yolks
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Equipment

1-quart flanera, or 1-quart round casserole dish with lid
1 ovenproof dish or baking pan that the flanera or casserole dish will fit into

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Make the caramel. Some people like to make caramel by adding water to sugar and then cooking it to a nice dark golden brown, and some just like to melt the sugar to golden without water. Either method will work here. If you are using a flanera, which is a metal pan with a lock-down lid, you can make the caramel right in the flanera. If you are using a casserole dish, make the caramel in a saucepan and pour into the bottom of the casserole dish.
  3. Prepare the custard while the caramel cools. Beat 1 whole egg and 5 egg yolks together. A whisk works very well here. Add evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk to egg and yolks and mix together. Add vanilla extract, either 1/2 teaspoon or 1 teaspoon depending on what strength you prefer. Pour custard mixture into the flanera or casserole dish over the hardened caramel. Put on lid.
  4. Put your flan into the ovenproof dish or baking pan and fill with hot water to about halfway up the sides, or as high as you can go and still move it without spilling hot water on yourself.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes. Turn off oven and let sit for another 15 minutes.
  6. Remove from oven and water bath and allow to cool.
  7. To plate, run a butter knife around the outside edge of the flan. Place a plate large enough to handle liquid caramel over flan and invert. Chill flan for at least an hour before serving.
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