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T&L Downtown: Boston's Mucho Gusto

We wandered into Mucho Gusto Cafe and Collectibles on a rainy night after an Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit where a guy recited a funny-yet-horrifying monologue for hours while pedaling an exercise bike suspended from the ceiling above a plexiglass tank apparently full of Gatorade. We left worn-out and starving. Mucho Gusto, with its welcoming neon sign, offered excellent refreshment.

Owner Oz Mondejar, resplendent in a Latino-cum-dentist shirt, met us at the door, as he does with all customers, pleasantly inquiring about our familiarity with Cuban fare. We confessed our relative neophyte status as he searched out a suitable table. Strains of "Oye Como Va" rose above the congenial din from a swell two-guy keyboard-and-bongos band playing in the back near the bar. As we waited, we took in the stunning amount of fifties Cuban kitsch artfully arranged over most surfaces. This accounted for the "Collectibles" part of the name, and included original Tito Puente albums and myriad fruit-basket-on-head-related items, all for sale (mostly fair prices, some on the high side). "We're trying to recreate here the feeling we lost in our country," he noted, "so we try to keep everything how it was when we left in 1954." As no tables were available just yet, Oz led us to the bar.

With only a beer and wine license, Oz really worked it. He suggested we try the house drink, the Cocatazos, literally "knocked on the head." At first it sounded, well, hideous -- white wine, choice of mango, guava, or pineapple juice, and a splash of coconut cream all blended and frozen -- but with the first delicious sip, we were poolside in pre-Fidel Havana. The "bebidas" menu also offered an excellent selection of wines including French champagne and several sherries, as well as a wide variety of microbrewed beers. And the Sangria Cubana was quite nice: not too sweet with just enough fruit. Specialty drinks included the Mango Mambo (mango nectar, champagne and grenadine), and the Pina Koolade (pineapple juice, champagne and coconut cream).

Oz singled out the Mucho Gusto Sampler as a good intro to Cuban cuisine. His mother prepares all menu selections, offering up her version of tried-and-true Cubano recipes with a few updates. The sampler, vegetarian, included tamales, tostones (green plantains), maduros (sweet plantains), yuca (cassava root), and malanga (tavo root)--fried ambrosia, with a nice combination of sweet and savory. Other interesting antojitos listed included crab cakes, garlic shrimp, and plantain balls.

Our colleagues at the bar represented the Boylston Street neighborhood. The 60-ish caballero to our right raised his glass to us, nodding in rhythm to "Perfidia," and knocking his wig slightly askew. The 20-ish hombre to our left, sporting a tattoo of a cougar on his shaved head and chaotic teeth, drummed along. In the dining area, Back Bay yuppies rubbed elbows with Berklee College of Music and ICA hipsters, as cheery waiters flew by, one singing loudly to "Besame Mucho."

Tables (all in that mid-century kitschy formica style) opened up in a reasonable amount of time, and Oz seated us in a comfortable booth. We started with the soup of the day, a lovely chilled mango in cream. Thrilled and basically full by now, we moved on to pescado a la parilla con salsa de vinagre (grilled fish of the day with vinagrette) and pollo frito criollo (Creole fried chicken). The fish, Chilean sea bass, was nicely grilled, juicy on the inside, and topped with citrusy marinated vegetables. And the chicken, Dios mio: marinated in citrus juices, garlic, herbs, and spices, it was fried to crispy, falling-off-the-bone perfection. Other interesting-looking entrees included pork chops in mojo sauce, and a Cuban hamburger.

Cafe, here an acronym, was described on the menu as "Caliente (hot), Amargo (bitter), Fuerte (strong) and Escaso (scanty)." We tried the cortadito, or sweet espresso shot (brewed with sugar in the grounds) with steamed milk, and found it scalding and satisfying. Other coffee offerings included Cafe Con Leche ("between cappucino and latte"), and the blended and frozen Cafe Frizado, made with chocolate and ice cream. Our accompanying flan was more firm than expected, but delicious nonetheless.

The service was excellent, and prices cheap (the most expensive entree was $14). Mucho Gusto is mucho fun.

COCATAZOS
Yields three 8 oz. drinks
1 shot coconut cream
6 oz tropical nectar
8 oz white wine (they use Chablis, but pick the one you like best)
2 scoops ice

Use the "pulse" blender setting; drink should be very smooth and frozen

Mucho Gusto Cafe and Collectibles
1124 Boylston Street, Boston, MA, 617/236-1020

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