Ah, the Caribbean.
Things to love about it: sand between your toes, shades of blue you never knew existed, margaritas, ceviche, pool boys with fluffy towels, bikini top optional, no alarm clocks, naps.
Things to love less about it: Caribbean time (things that should take a minute take an hour — get used to it), hangovers, 98 and a breeze is "pretty cool," jellyfish, chiggers, sand in your bed, sunburned nipples, hurricanes, amoebic invasions.
Vacation giveth and vacation taketh away; the Caribbean is an enchanting mistress with a duplicitous underbelly. Just when you think you've arrived in paradise, there's a scorpion in the shower.
And so it is with sweet, little, sometimes intoxicating but often frustrating La Ceiba. The cafe recently popped up in Powderhorn, a scrappy yet hallowed area that hosts the cherished MayDay Parade and the MayDay Cafe, but could definitely use a little culinary booster to buoy it. Is La Ceiba the sunny day the neighborhood has been waiting for?
The simple buildout is quaint but colorful, the drop ceilings and practical light fixtures are offset by pretty murals of Cuba and toucans and tropical fruits. These instantly put you in a good mood, the way you feel when someone thrusts a tropical drink into your hand upon landing in the Cancun airport. Things are getting better already.
But then, service tends to be of the "trying very hard" ilk; not lackadaisical but also not pro. You get the sense that something harrowing is happening behind the scenes, like understaffing or a disorganized kitchen or a too-tight shoe. It's hard to put a finger on, but it doesn't welcome in the way you want when otherwise greeted by a toucan with a multicolored beak.
I mention service right at the outset because the beauty of dining at La Ceiba is that it feels like what you imagine a paladar is like — you know those Cuban in-home restaurants they're always going on about on the travel blogs? Casual, folksy, sunny, you imagine. But the oddity of the service here at La Ceiba — the long waits and the tight smiles — kind of breaks the spell.
For a neighborhood cafe, the menu is massive at over 30 items: five different fish appetizers, three starters involving plantains, six rice dishes, four shrimp entrees. The redundancy is unnecessary unless you're looking for the full encyclopedia of Caribbean cooking.
The best bite by far was a lunchtime medianoche. It's an evasive animal around these parts and akin to a Cubano, but made better with sweet egg dough bread that makes you never want a Cubano again. Happily, at La Ceiba one can have both and conduct a little hammy taste test if one so desires.
We also liked a breakfast Cuban picadillo, a fragrant hash of ground beef, caper, cumin, olives, and raisins. It comes served with rice and beans and it's at once unusual, fine, and special, yet down-home and unaffected. Sadly, the spell was broken by burned-at-the edges, overcooked eggs, a sign of haste or understaffing, and an important detail to get right, especially at breakfast.
Other dishes fell roundly into that "close but no cigar" category. Again, if I were dining in the house of a kindly old lady? "Wow! This is great!" I'd declare, over and over just so I could see the flash of her toothy grin. And it would be, too, for home cooking. But at $17 a plate, something was always not quite right.
Fried yuca was ragged and broken with no semblance of presentation or individual integrity — just a frayed pile of fried stuff on a plate. A red wine, sherry, garlic, and soy sauce couldn't save it.
A "Dominicana" salad wanted to take advantage of tomato season, plating yellow and red varieties with avocado, grilled red onions, queso fresco, chili oil, and tamarind glaze. While the tamarind glaze was thoughtful and enticing, the rest of it was clunky and not polished enough for a dish of just a few raw ingredients, which has to be done precisely or not at all.
We quite liked a ceviche of calamari, shrimp, fish, crab, and scallops, but it arrived drowning in its citrus sauce. You had to dig down deep into the crock and guess what you were going to pull out. A tiny quibble, maybe, but an integral detail in my now-mounting theory that the kitchen lacked finesse.
We were happy to see mofongo on offer here. Like the medianoche, it's about as easy to find around these parts as bikinis in February. Getting to the "authentic" roots of a dish like this one is like deciding which Santa Claus is the real St. Nick: It all depends on what mall you went to as a kid. In its most basic form, mofongo is pounded plantain drenched in a piquant, porky broth interspersed with bacon or pork cracklins. It is a somewhat exotic, irresistible soul food that gets down into your bones and makes you feel all emotional.
But here, the classic has been "updated" with pork tenderloin, which is the oxymoron of meats. Has pork tenderloin ever been good and tender, anywhere? This mofongo has been classed up, and as a result dumbed down, and in translation has lost some of its humble grace.
Chef/owner Hector Ruiz is a big, kindly, gregarious guy who introduced Minnesotans to the nuances of Caribbean cooking when he took over El Meson in the early 2000s. This was when you pretty much had to go to St. Paul's West Side for solid Mexican, and you were doubly hard pressed to find a good paella or an arroz con gandules.
At that beloved south Minneapolis spot, the chef garnered a following, beginning a nouveau Mexican/Caribbean empire that today includes Cafe Ena, Rincon 38, La Fresca, and now La Ceiba.
Each of Ruiz's places has a following for its own reasons. If you were a fan of El Meson, probably you will like La Ceiba, especially if you order a paella or an arroz con pollo. The latter, again, is nice and homey, but not exceptional. It's fine to enjoy with a Tuesday night sangria, eyeing the big Cuba mural to your left and chatting with your sweetie about what it might be like to finally dine in one of those paladares. Someday.
You won't find out at La Ceiba, nor will you find out what it is like to dine in a very fine Caribbean restaurant. Anyway, paradise is just an illusion, isn't it? Take the good, try to avoid the bad, order up a medianoche to go and probably a second sangria for the road. The stairway to excellence is long and arduous. You might as well pack a sandwich and a drink.
La Ceiba Bistro
3500 Bloomington Ave. S., Minneapolis
menu items: $7-$21