This time of the year always depresses me a little bit. The holidays are over, decorations are removed. To make matters worse, it’s cold, and the warmth of summer is still too far away. It’s the time of year where escapism is my only way to cope. So, of course, I escape through restaurants.
Though, far from tropical this time of year, it’s easy to conjur images of a warm Paris day while dining at Croissant Du Jour, 3531 Mt. Vernon Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids. Located in the strip mall next to True Value hardware, this quaint French restaurant could just as easily be found in the French countryside or Parisian side street. Pastry cases are loaded with tarts and brioche. We settled in with tea and coffee at a small café table, elbow to elbow with other patrons in classic European style. I have a hard time not ordering the Croque Madame — the familiar American grilled cheese, which is transformed by adding ham, Dijon mustard and a fried egg. I missed the béchamel sauce that I’ve come to expect at other French eateries, but that wouldn’t stop me from hiding away in this European escape again. I can’t leave without an almond or chocolate croissant in hand either.
For another – perhaps more exotic — option, head to The Lost Cuban in downtown Cedar Rapids. Once home to Salsa del Rio (and Victor’s before that) at 209 Third St. SE — the pictures on the wall have been replaced with art of Cuban streetscapes. The food still has an authentic flair. Cuban food is traditionally less spicy than dishes from other equitorial countries. Subtle flavors and a range of spices are signature for each dish.
Ropa Vieja is normally my go-to for Cuban food. The shredded steak in a tomato sauce has subtle flavors of garlic and spice and warms you from the inside out. The way chili-mac can be the perfect Saturday afternoon lunch on a cold winter day, the Ropa Vieja with a pile of rice and beans hits the same spot.
On Wednesday night, The Lost Cuban offers all-you-can-eat-empanadas — small fried pockets of seasoned meat and a smattering of diced olives. I recommend the chicken ones. Wash down your meal with a specialty soda, if you are lucky. The first time I ate at The Lost Cuban there were several choices and I went with coconut. Recently only pineapple was left. Apparently the supply dwindled quickly and the owner will have to travel 1,000 miles to restock with his preferred selection.
Follow The Lost Cuban on Facebook for daily specials like Monday’s Cuban sandwich. Apparently on a grilled cheese kick, we tried both the Cuban and Media Noche sandwiches. Both were served with rice and black beans and a beverage for $8.
The difference in the two sandwiches is slight. One uses sweeter egg roll bread. Both include ham, cheese, pickle and mustard. If you prefer dishes on the spicy side, ask for the specialty sauce concocted by the owners’ brother using several kinds of peppers, including ghost peppers.
Apparently you don’t have to leave Iowa, or even Cedar Rapids, to escape the winter doldrums. All it takes is an hour over lunch to visit a café in Paris or an evening with friends to get a taste of Cuba.