Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Rosa Blanca

Is Jose Garces's new Cuban diner enough to transport you to Havana?

Masitas de puerco. Photography by Michael Persico

Jose Garces can take you places. And the most compelling ones are those you’d have the hardest time reaching on your own. That’s why Amada, with its broad embrace of Spain, has always been second in my book to Tinto’s deep dive into Basque country. And it’s one reason JG Domestic’s all-American pantry, for all its ambition, has always felt more expendable than Distrito’s gaudy fantasia of luchador masks and tequila-cured ceviche.

So if there was any silver lining to the closure of Chifa, whose Peruvian-Chinese cuisine was Garces’s most inspired adventure, it was the news that its replacement would be a destination that gets stamped on even fewer American passports: a Cuban diner.

With its chrome-edged marble counter arcing through a riot of turquoise and flamingo, pointing the way to a dining room where white fedoras and transistor radios hang above banquettes of tobacco-colored leather, Rosa Blanca looks as good as the movies: one part Miami Beach, one part Disney, one part wishful thinking about what Havana might have been.

It’s a winning formula for a busy diner. Whether it’s eggs over easy with sweet Puerto Rican-style mashed plantains and even sweeter malta-glazed pork belly, pickly pork sandwiches on larded white bread, or a solid skirt steak with shoestring fries, Rosa Blanca’s mostly familiar dishes are drawing way more traffic than Chifa’s complex ones ever did. Just don’t expect to be whisked away to anywhere terribly intriguing.

The kitchen of Tinto veteran Jose Olmeda sends out occasional sparks, which all too often hiss out on the wet kindling of more commonplace fare. The masitas de puerco is a garlic lover’s dream: cubes of pork shoulder sous-vided in sour orange marinade, deep-fried, strafed with garlic-lime-cilantro mojo, and sunk into a savory corn pudding made from partly fermented cornmeal. But good head-on shrimp couldn’t save an oversalted tomato-and-pepper stew. And conch, yuca and coconut somehow didn’t really distinguish the chowder from more workaday New England versions.

There’s likable stuff in the middle. Vaca frita breaks apart into perfectly tender shreds. The yuca fries are airy enough to float. And the puffed-wheat-cereal milkshake hits Cuban-Americana right on the nose. A fistful of allspice lifted an unctuous lamb curry out of your average Indian buffet, but brittle guava and cheese pasteles betrayed their long commute from North Philly. And there was no comparing the mild-to-a-fault cobia ceviche to its stupendous predecessors at Chifa.

So while there’s just enough Latin sizzle — if not spice — to set Rosa Blanca apart from other diners, it’s not enough to get me all the way to Havana.

One-and-a-half stars – Fair to Good

Rosa Blanca [Foobooz]

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.