Old San Juan could be a soda shop. With the little red stools at the spanking-clean counter, the shelves of groceries off to the right, the display case with cold desserts beckoning, and the cooler of soft drinks, one could naturally draw that conclusion. But its appearance belies the fine authenticity of Lexington's only Cuban restaurant.
The menu represents everything that is great and good in simple Caribbean fare. Bear in mind that even though the restaurant's namesake is the capital of Puerto Rico, that cuisine and Cuba's are first cousins. So if it's food you're after, you can save the airfare to Miami, New York or San Juan itself by taking a left on Malabu Drive and driving just a few blocks.
I have only two warnings: Pace yourself with the milkshakes, and save room for dessert.
In this weather, I defy anyone to come up with a more refreshing (non-alcoholic) and irresistible drink than a mango batido, or milkshake. Made with a scoop of mango ice cream, a little milk and plenty of ice cubes to keep it from being too thick, this shake is now officially my favorite summer beverage, evocative of the steamy tropics yet guaranteed to keep you cool. It also comes in other exotic flavors including tamarind and papaya, and the standard chocolate and vanilla.
But, as I say, don't allow yourself to become preoccupied with your batido and forget to order lunch or dinner. Two can share any dish here, but why? Everything is so inexpensive, and some dishes won't suffer from reheating at home.
The torta Cubano is Old San Juan's signature dish. Roast pork, salami, Swiss cheese and pickles are pressed together on a grill between two long pieces of white bread — just the way a perfect grilled cheese is made. What emerges is a tender sandwich with a lightly crisp "crust" packed with salty richness.
There are 10 combination plates — featuring pork or beef, shrimp, chicken or red snapper — all served with white rice, savory black beans and fried sweet plantains that caramelize themselves. A light choice is the picadillo: ground beef with onions and peppers in a tomato sauce. It sounds simple, but it will change your perspective on hamburger meat forever.
Fried meat and cheese pies also are a must. Try an empanada stuffed with chicken in tomato sauce. The experience is like chicken chili in a pastry. And because everything here is made fresh (which can slow things down a bit, so plan accordingly), it arrives piping hot — as it should.
Remember I mentioned dessert? If you find yourself too full at this point, order a serving of flan to go. It is delicately pale with custard, brown with caramelized sugar, rich yet light as a feather, and unequivocally the best version I have tasted in Lexington.
Old San Juan might be simple in ambience, but the service is warm, the food is delicious, and you will never think about milkshakes the same way again.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.