Restaurant review: Vargas Cafe in Cape Canaveral is a hole-in-the-wall of the best kind
Sometimes, you don’t care about ambiance and stylishness in a restaurant; sometimes, atmosphere is determined by the graciousness of the proprietor and the quality of the food. Such a restaurant is Vargas Café.
It has as tiny a dining room, with two tables and three seats at a counter. One could say it is busily decorated: One wall has a huge mural of Havana, another, various mementos and clippings, not least of which are the Cuban and U.S. flags. The ceiling is festooned with countless numbers of currency, foreign and American. The kitchen is visible to all comers and they do come: businesspeople, medical professionals, police officers, vacationers, chefs.
What they get is very good food and the overall feeling that that they are dining in the home of an old-style Cuban-American family. For an hour or so, you are in your favorite restaurant in Calle Ocho, the hub of what was the Cuban restaurant district in Miami.
The menu is small: nine entrees, side dishes, seven sandwiches, tacos and burritos, and except for the latter, it’s all Cuban. This day, we went for masitas de puerco (fried pork, $14.75), puerco azado (roast pork, $14.75) and a Cuban sandwich ($10), with an order of croquetas de jamon ($2.65) as an appetizer.
Real-deal Cuban bread, toasted as it should be, went on the table at once, beverage orders having been taken the minute you hit the chair. Yes, you can get tropical juices and Latin sodas, including cane sugar-sweetened Coca-Cola in the bottle. A cortadito (a Cuban espresso beverage) is hot, foamy and made as it should be, slightly sweet.
The croquetas were lovely, little rolls of finely ground ham with just enough seasoning to keep them bright, fried to a crisp, just as Cuban friends would serve them, but then, the hospitality of Vargas is such that you feel like they are Cuban friends.
The lunch entrees are large, more than sufficient for dinner, with yellow rice, black beans and a bit of salad.
Chunks of fried pork contrast a slightly crisp and sweet exterior with tender meat, and lots of it, beneath. The rice is as it should be, and no one complains about the beans.
Like the fried variety, the roast pork is perfectly cooked, leaving the meat easy on the tooth, though perhaps a touch fatty. Both dishes are garlic-forward but not garlic-overwhelming and topped with onions. Nothing about any of it is processed or pre-cooked.
The Cuban sandwich is thick with slices of ham, oozing cheese, expertly pressed on more of that Cuban bread. Our dining companions are fussy about pork because both are chefs, one of whom called her sandwich “the best.”
As fine as those meals were, the hospitality, again, is the deal maker. Each dish comes with Cuban coffee, and the owner came around multiple times with pitchers of sweetened and unsweetened coffee to refill.
Conversation is important too; the owners don’t merely take orders, they talk to you, about food, about family, about anything. You go away, not missing dessert, but feeling as if you have found new friends in Cape Canaveral, and before you leave, the owner announces that he has a tree full of avocados, so everyone gets one.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of Cuban friends, or if you want to know what a meal in a Cuban home tastes like, go to Vargas Café, a hole-in the-wall of the best kind.
We will be back, often.
Three and a half stars
Address: 8010 N. Atlantic Ave., Cape Canaveral
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Hours may vary under current conditions
Other: Jarrito sodas, mineral water, beers and sangria are available.
About our reviews
Restaurants are rated on a five-star system by FLORIDA TODAY’s reviewer. The reviews are the opinion of the reviewer and take into account quality of the restaurant’s food, ambiance and service. Ratings reflect the quality of what a diner can reasonably expect to find. To receive a rating of less than three stars, a restaurant must be tried twice and prove unimpressive on each visit. Each reviewer visit is unannounced and paid for by FLORIDA TODAY.
Five stars: Excellent. A rare establishment to which you’d be proud to take the most discerning diner.
Four stars: Very good. Worth going out of your way for. Food, atmosphere and service are routinely top notch.
Three stars: Good. A reasonably good place with food and service that satisfy.
Two stars: Fair. While there’s nothing special about this establishment, it will do in a pinch.
One star: Not recommended. Don’t bother.
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