El Cristo is a popular tourist stop in the heart of Little Havana, but it is no tourist trap. The food it serves is the real deal, made from scratch by a staff who know what they’re doing. Sitting at the counter, for instance, gives you a view of fruits being squeezed for juice, strong coffee brewing, Cuban sandwiches assembled and press-cooked in the plancha, and cups of rice pudding getting artfully decorated with mint leaves, cinnamon, and a cherry.
While the counter is a favorite among locals, and sometimes is occupied by young sons and daughters of the waitstaff, most visiting customers sit at tables in the adjoining dining room, which provides a respite from the commotion out on Calle Ocho.
Whatever else is ordered, the meal will begin with a basket of garlic toast made from slices of Cuban bread. They’re crisp, light, buttery, and fun to munch with preprandial cocktails or with the fabulous fruit juices or smoothies that are available.
Deciding what to eat is a challenge when confronting a menu that includes a long inventory of beef, pork, chicken, and seafood dishes, all of which are native classics. Roasted pulled pork is tender and sweet-flavored; ropa vieja mixes shredded beef with onions and peppers for a hugely satisfying plate of food.
If two seafood lovers share a table, they can avail themselves of a bountiful platter that contains grilled salmon (or, if you wish, tilapia), big shrimp, clams, stone crab claws (when available), and a couple of lobster tails – all swimming in a pool of garlic butter. The tariff is high – well over $50 – but you cannot walk away from this beautiful tray of food unsatisfied. (A single-serving version also is available, which is the same idea but without lobster). Best bets for side dishes are elegant boiled yuca, preferably draped with cooked onions, and a dark, stout mix of rice and beans.
Note that breakfast is served every day from 8am; and El Cristo is open until midnight Friday and Saturday.