CLOTHES LINE: At Rosa Blanca, ropa vieja is slow-braised with olives and tomatoes.
In tropical, Spanish-speaking lands — Cuba, Puerto Rico, Miami — the pastelito de guayaba is a classic coffee mate. Guava preserves as thick and sticky as a Florida summer are tucked into a light, flaky, cinnamon-brown puff pastry — a croissant on a Caribbean getaway.
You find the pastelitos everywhere, from ramshackle cafes to sterling resorts, as well as a few thousand miles north on Chestnut Street, where Jose Garces has turned his Canto-Peruvian dreamboat, Chifa, into a Cuban-inspired diner, Rosa Blanca.
The name means ‘white rose,’ or alternately ‘pink white,’ though ‘pink blue’ might be more fitting, considering the front bar’s joyful toothpaste-and-bubble-gum color scheme. Bricks of Café Bustelo and cartons of vintage Kools decorate the open shelves behind the bar, interspersed between frosted-glass cabinets stocked with 70- plus rums. Giant caged propeller fans, holdovers from Chifa, turn lazily overhead. Globe lights glow, potted palms rustle and the servers hustle — females in cotton-candy aprons, males in black jackets and bow ties.
“On a cold winter day you walk into Rosa Blanca and you feel like you’re in a balmy, 75-degree day right outside of Havana,” says Garces, whose wife is Cuban. “To transport people, that was the thought.”
Business was also the thought. Though the cooking at Chifa was accomplished, it never quite connected in this neighborhood — especially not for the local lunch crowd. Rosa Blanca’s affordable, approachable style remedies that. “We did 150 covers at lunch yesterday,” Garces says. “On a good day at Chifa, we’d do 30 or 40.”
Up front, in an open-prep kitchen framed by the building’s storefront windows, cooks crisp the Cuban sandwiches on Electrolux presses the size of Denali engines. There’s a register and a smiling, aproned employee or two here, expediting take-out orders for the lunch crowd. And in a glass display case on the chrome-trimmed Formica counter, pastelitos — they call them pasteles here — are lined up like impulse-purchase Tastykakes at your neighborhood corner store. Some are straight-up guava. In others, a whipped mix of ricotta and cream cheese tempers the jam’s floral, fruity sweetness.
If you’re visiting Rosa Blanca for breakfast or busy brunch, you can order the turnovers from the menu, too, as I did. In pools of pretend shade in the shadowy rear dining room, I sunk into a tufted, tobacco-brown booth that was so spacious it felt like the backseat of a Cadillac. I nursed a properly silky café con leche while waiting for my guava-and-cheese pastele to arrive.
The pasteles are not made in-house, but at a Puerto Rican bakery in North Philly that executes the recipe Garces and crew spent two months working on. Who then was to blame for the tragic turnover I received? While the pastry portion came correct, all buttery and brittle, the puffed, hollow interior was emptier than a plundered tomb. Skid marks of guava, no trace of cheese.
The rest of the breakfast — skirt steak vaca frita with crispy edges and cumin-y black beans-and-rice, eggs with creamy grits — was tasty, if puny. There is plenty to like about Rosa Blanca, but I can’t shake the dark clouds of missed opportunity and halfheartedness that overshadowed some of my meals here. At least some of the highly publicized selection of exotic juices are fresh-pressed at the Goya factory. A cocktail called La Tormenta proved aptly named. It tormented my palate as it tried to find alleged additions of ginger and cardamom; all I could taste was mint, torn to confetti by the harried bartender.
A ceviche of cobia featured firm, pristine cubes of fish, soft sweet potatoes and crunchy corn nuts, but the watery leche-de-tigre marinade lacked oomph, and the dish came with three — count ’em, three — plantain chips for scooping. Treated with molasses, bay and sweet spices, the soulful ropa vieja possessed an extraordinary depth of flavor from a slow braise in olive-studded tomato stew, but the soft brisket lacked a textural counterpoint.
Perhaps these inconsistencies can be attributed to another inconsistency — in the kitchen. Opening chef Yun Fuentes, a longtime Garces lieutenant, left Rosa Blanca within the first month. Jose Olmeda relocated from Tinto to replace him, and my last meal here (ostensibly after Olmeda had had a few weeks to settle in) showed the most promise. It began with a different bartender, who did a beautiful job on the classic, but tricky, daiquiri: Strained smooth and icy; not too boozy, too sweet or too acidic.
Like the ropa vieja, the curried lamb was the kind of satisfying, cooked-all-day thing you want to slowly sink into, like a Jacuzzi. It smelled of a spice bazaar, husky allspice carrying cinnamon and clove on each unctuous scrap of shoulder and neck meat. I also loved the silky coconut chowder with nuggets of conch, peas and yucca.
At all meals, desserts were highlights, whether sticky coconut pudding with mango sorbet and cookie crumbs (a take on traditional Puerto Rican tembleque) or moist pineapple upside-down cake on a comet of guava coulis. Now if only someone would put it inside a pastele.
ROSA BLANCA | 707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555, rosablancadiner.com. Sun.-Thu., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-midnight. Appetizers, $4-$13; entrees, $16-$27; desserts $4-$9.
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