10319 Venice Boulevard (@ Motor Avenue)
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Up until I moved to Los Angeles, the only Latin cuisine I had known was “Mexican,” like Taco Bell and if I was lucky, El Torito. Okay, I exaggerate to make a point, since I practically grew up on Tex-Mex in San Antonio, but that’s why Mexican is in quotes. :) Obviously, that was all a long time ago – long enough that I’ve developed quite a Latin palate. I’ve tried and love Argentinean, Brazilian, El Salvadorean (more on that to come), Peruvian, and Spanish. But the first one I tried that wasn’t Mexican was Cuban at Versailles.
The details of that first meal at Versailles are pretty hazy, probably because I was in shock that the beans weren’t refried, the rice was neither red nor dry, and there were no chips y salsa. I waddled away from that meal thinking that Cuban food was God’s gift to garlic roast pork.
It’s been a long time since I’d been back to Versailles. The occasion had just never availed itself to me. With time turning into money, meals were one extreme or the other – Jack in the Car on the commute home at 11 pm, or else a big dinner outing on the weekend. Versailles fit in neither category, caught in that ‘tween phase, too big and awkward to eat without thinking, but not sophisticated enough for lip gloss and high heels. And besides, Versailles isn’t only in that ‘tween phase, but it’s also located in the ‘taint - ‘taint close enough on the Westside, and ‘taint far enough toward somewhere else to be worth a drive.
Well, now I work within walking distance for lunch at Versailles (not that I’d ever walk there), and look who’s all grown up now! No one really, actually, because Versailles looks exactly the same as the last time I ate there. Even the huge gaudy red name painted across the front and sides looks like it hasn't been touched. The restaurant appears to share its parking lot with some sort of used car dealership or perhaps a body shop or perhaps they’re just that busy, as there are cars parked in every which way, even on the sidewalk out front.
But parking appearance are deceiving, and though Versailles has always had a reputation for being ridiculously busy, we were seated right away at a small table, close enough to the side wall so we could read the daily lunch specials on the board overhead. The server promptly brought water and a basket of bread which initially I purposely pushed away to make it easier to ignore. It’s just bread after all, but they looked at me like I was crazy, so I took a piece. The bread had been spread with a garlic butter and toasted already. Breaking it apart, first it crisped, leaving flaky crumbs all over the tabletop, then tore apart in the center, warm and softly chewy. It was promising on sight, sound, and touch, but finally on taste, it was disappointing. Wonder white with Parkay. I was right. It’s just bread.
All the times I had been to Versailles before, I had always ordered the roast pork, even though the place is reknown for their garlic chicken. On this long overdue re-introduction to Versailles, I didn’t go with their famous dish, but I did order chicken. The chicken breast was lightly pounded flat, marinated in tangy citrus, grilled, topped with sliced onions on the plate, and served with rice and french fries. Either the marinade had been too aggressively acidic or the grill time was too long, because the chicken breast was dry and hard. Sure, that’s the nature of chicken breast, but not so hard that I was sending rice over the edge of my plate vigorously sawing at the chicken flesh, and not so dry that I had to gulp my ice water with each bite to get it down my esophagus. The flavor was good, but a great tasting marinade can only do so much for birch tree bark.
The onions were the only thing that I finished, and that’s quite a statement given that there were french fries on the plate! How upsetting that they were completely flavorless - no salt, no seasoning, neither crispy nor soggy, just tasted like oily, grainy cardboard. I even surprised myself by leaving almost all of them. The rice was drier than I would have expected, but perhaps I was just comparing it to the rice I had recently eaten with lunch at Cafe Brazil. The rice I didn't mind since I'm not a fan in the first place, but the fries? That was disappointing.
Barbecue chicken and shredded roast pork were the other two dishes we ordered. The barbecue chicken is still on the bone, smothered with a garlicky barbecue sauce, and served with blacks beans and plantains. Strangely, though the chicken meat and bones were left i
ntact, the meat was dry. It wasn’t quite as desert dry as my chicken breast, and certainly drowning in sauce it was much easier on the esophagus, but meat on the bone should be moister and more flavorful. It was a bad choice anyway, since the dish requires the use of hands – not desirable for returning to the office.
The roast pork wasn’t bad, as it seemed more tender and moist than the chicken dishes by comparison. Perhaps it was just easier to chew because it was already shredded. The rice, stained black by the beans that were cooked together with it, was even drier than the plain white rice with the chicken breast. The meats were dry, the rice was dry, the fries were dry, but the most disappointing thing was the plantains – which were dry, not as sweet and caramelized as I remember or expect, and tasted like they might have been made hours in advance and re-heated. I would have been okay with a everything else, but the plantains were a crash-landing.
I went to Cuba via Versailles, but I want to come back. It just wasn't as good as I remember it, and I don't think it's the cuisine. It was Versailles. I might give the restaurant another try, since it was my first time back in a long time, but it’s more likely that when I want to go to Cuba, I’ll travel via a different restaurant.