When days become frigid, my mind turns to the flavors of Spain and the Caribbean. And that jogs memories of days in the sun at sidewalk and beachfront cafes or street food in Matamoros, down Mexico way. So let’s revive a memory or create new ones near and far. – Jay Lloyd
Step inside, leave the curbside clusters of snow behind and find a room converted into a Havana street scene. Tropical ceiling fans, decorative balconies and colors as bright as sunshine warm the room. One spoonful of “Levanta Muerto,” a mildly tingly, flavorful seafood soup that translates to “Raise the Dead,” banishes any lingering sense of winter. The menu here is crammed with Cuban cookery, and a Sunday brunch let’s you sample much of it. The spare ribs are a must and the shrimp cheese dish is addictive. Everything is for sharing, so bring friends.
The menu evokes Mexico but the restaurant is at the edge of downtown Conshohocken. On our last visit, Chilean sea bass was a menu addition and convincing evidence that this kitchen knows how to prepare fish. There’s a wide range of familiar Mexican fare, but, having typical Northeastern taste, I generally veer toward fajitas, simply prepared with either chicken, beef or shrimp, red peppers and onions and folded into warm tortillas. Nothing exotic, but it certainly makes one forget about winter for awhile. It’s tough not to fill up before dinner on the nachos and the tantalizing salsa that appears alongside tropical mojo-inducing margaritas.
I can hear it now: “Are you mad?” Why pick a commercial chain, faux Mexican eatery that’s parked in a shopping center and looks like the Alamo? Because it’s fun! And while the food may be knock-off, it’s not bad, and people, including my Mary, who lived in El Paso, always manage to clean their plate. By the way, she tucks into the chile rellenos when available, and I hang out with a variety of burritos and fajitas. But it’s easy to make a meal out of the nibbles, including the popular quesadillas and mini chimichangas. Happy hour is the key here, well populated by the 21 to 35 crowd from the nearby pharmaceutical companies. The rooms are colorful and certainly make you forget that chill outside those pastel walls. The crowd here calls it the best happy hour in the ‘burbs, and that’s why it makes the list.
It’s worth a trip to nearby New York for the flavors of Spain and the much desired, “socorrat,” the crisp crust that clings to the paella pan after the paella itself has been devoured. Tapas offerings blend the familiar with creative combinations. Socorrat is extremely popular for its lively bar and communal feeling as well as its dynamite service. After five tapas plates and an order of tomato bread, a paella for two is more than enough for four. Socorrat also has a nice selection of reasonably price Spanish wines and Estrella beer.
And finally, if you really want to escape winter and find yourself, as Mary and I did, across the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, head for a cantina called Las Dos Republicas. Local legend has it that a flaming redhead from Texas walked in one day and the bartender became smitten enough to create a drink for the woman, who was named Maggie. And so they say, “The Margarita was first sipped here.” Imagine what we’d be drinking if she was named Rita! A strolling guitarist in a colorful room and typical Mexican finger food, not to mention the margaritas and a variety of Mexican beers, add up to a tropical afternoon well spent. By the way, you’ll find that typical street food just across the square near the Juarez Market.