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Dec 15, 2010 12:30 AM

Ropa Vieja Cuban Lunch Special at Mikey’s in San Rafael (and ex-Mambo’s Cafe chef found)

After reading the rec by “DezzerSF”
for Cuban lunch specials at Mikey’s, I slid into this very nice upholstered booth the very next day.

The ambiance of the neighboring body shops (littered with BMWs, Porsches and Benzes) and Mikey’s generic storefront, ,
provide no clue at all of how nice the inside of this little diner actually is. Warm colors, high ceilings, wooden surfaces, Cuban music, and attractive lighting make this an easy place to sit a spell.

Since DezzerSF had reported on the masitas, I focused on something different to try. I asked my waitress to check with the kitchen about whether I could have all dark meat if I ordered the chicharron de pollo. Her initial answer was that it had no meat in it, only chicken, so I requested that she ask the chef if he could make it with just leg meat. I had to wait nearly 30 minutes for the chicken to be cooked to order, and I was ready to pounce when the plate landed in front of me. Priced at $7.50, the chicharron was served with plantains, salad, and black beans and rice. Black beans over soft white rice had delicious depth from the well-turned sofrito. Golden brown and custardy fried plantains, done nicely too. Yet my highest praise might go to the vibrant vinaigrette bursting with fresh herbs and Cuban spices served over baby greens. It could turn anyone into a veggie eater.

Unfortunately, the chicharron de pollo turned out to be nearly 3/4s breast meat. I tried one boneless chunk and it was hard and too dry for me. Admittedly the very delicious garlicky mojo splashed over the chicken earned brownie points leading to mixed feelings about returning it. Still, I motioned to my waitress who apologized for not telling me that this is made from all parts of the chicken, a little of each.

I asked her to replace it with ropa vieja, being precooked and therefore the fastest dish to serve. The flank steak was not dried out and turned to lifeless floss. Instead the beef was just tender enough while retaining a little bit of chew. The flavorful, fresh-tasting creole sauce had me wishing I had a bit more rice to soak up the juices. Then the owner stopped by and asked if I wanted more rice! But no, I was more than full at that point and feeling very satisfied by the homey flavors elevated with a touch of finesse.

Asked for feedback, I praised the food, other than the miscommunication, and was curious how he’d decided to add Cuban dishes to the menu. He explained that he owns a club and after many delays in trying to get a food permit, the city denied it. He bought this place to have a catering kitchen to supply the club. He said that his breakfast cook had worked for another Cuban place in town and suggested trying some lunch specials to have something different. Turns out he is the chef from Mambo’s Café which shut down three years ago. I told the owner that I was happy to have his chef’s food again, that I preferred his cooking to Sol Food but there had been service problems there. He said that customers have been coming back for the Cuban food, and I told him I thought he was off to a good start at six weeks of operation.

Here’s the listing of lunch specials on the sandwich board outside.

I’ve noticed that the website now includes the Cuban and Peruvian specialties. Oh, and when I asked the owner to start serving Cuban coffee, he said it was on order.

Hoping we’ll hear more about the other dishes from the local ‘hounds!

Marin IJ

783 Andersen Dr, San Rafael, CA 94901

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  1. Glad you enjoyed the ropa vieja Melanie. I had it on my last visit and enjoyed it as well. I like to splash a little Tabasco on the rice and beans to mimic Sol's spicy vinegar.

    I also prefer Mikey's cooking to Sol's. I noticed you ordered the sweet plantains but the fried garlic plantains, which come with a garlicy vinegar, are the best I've had.

    I want to try the Cubano sandwich next, very very curious about it.

    5 Replies
    1. re: DezzerSF

      I'm not sure if I"m subject to the whim of the singer in "Finian's Rainbow" When I'm not near the Cubano I love, I love the Cubano I'm near but Mikey's is the clear winner. The moist hunks of pork are carnitas with crisp spicules, the bread soft, the cheese identifiable and melted. The only negative is the mayo. It tops previous examples at Havana Sol , Sol Food, Paladar, and Andronico's plus a couple of other that weren't close.

      1. re: wolfe

        I just had the Cubano today as well, it's the best I've had. Moist pork, smoky ham, good ratio of cheese, pickles, mustard, mayo and perfect bread. Delicious!

        Was there too much mayo in your sandwich?

        We also shared the Bistec de palomilla encebollada, steak topped with mojo grilled onions. Two thin slices of tender steak, with the tasty marinade really coming through.

        Make sure to get the rice moro style, cooked together with the beans. I wasn't aware this was an option until today.

          1. re: DezzerSF

            Were you the tall guy with the young lady near the cash register?

            1. re: wolfe

              No, I was with my coworker in a booth on the right hand side. We sat down right before noon.

    2. My husband and I split the ropa vieja and chicken mofungo. They were both good, but I preferred the ropa vieja. I've had mofungo in Puerto Rico, and always enjoy it, but here it was slightly acidic for my taste. It might be better/more interesting with the pork or shrimp. We tried one order of rice and black beans, and one Moros y Cristianos (mixed rice and beans).The rice and beans were well-prepared, and I would order them separately next time since the MyC have a tendency to dry out. The sweet plantains were much better than at Sol Food -- well-caramelized and more delicate.

      On a whim we split a coconut flan for dessert, and both agreed it was excellent. The flan was a square of custard (rather than the dreaded rubbery puck), with shredded coconut baked onto the top, served in a pool of slightly bitter caramel sauce.

      I've missed Mambo's, and had no idea the chef was cooking at Mikey's. Thanks for the heads-up. Next time I'll try the Cubano, hold the mayo.

      6 Replies
      1. re: TerriL

        Wow, great work all of you for busting through most of the Cuban menu in no time flat!

        I can hardly wait to hear about the Peruvian side of the menu. Looking at the photos on this page, , those dishes look like lomo saltado, aji de gallina, ceviche, and polla ala brasa to me.

        And, I'd love to know if the corned beef is good here. I noticed that the description for the corned beef hash says "house cooked corned beef brisket", so it might be worth a shot, or the Reuben sandwich.

        Not everyone was a fan of Mambo's but I sure was and I'm so happy to have found the chef again.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          My coworker raved about the Reuben on our first visit, but I personally haven't had it. I'm interested in the Mexican breakfasts myself.

          1. re: DezzerSF

            Thanks, and yes, it all sounds good!

            DezzerSF, I hope you'll start up some new threads and tell us where else in San Rafael you're lunching. Would be good to have more board activity for Marin.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              It's slim pickings in SR, but yes, will do.

              1. re: DezzerSF

                Now that we know that Seafood Peddler serves escargot . . . :-D

                Seafood Peddler
                100 Yacht Club Drive, San Rafael, CA 94901

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  That's hilarious. I just proposed it for our next office luncheon. Ha!

      2. Pic of the Masitas de Puerco and excellent tostones

        1. Had a new Cuban special today, Picadillo. It's made with ground beef, bell peppers, raisins, and olives. I've never had this dish before so I can't compare, but it was very homey and tasty, well seasoned.

          Also of note, never had a problem with the moro rice being dry, it's always been nice and moist the past several times I've ordered it.

          4 Replies
          1. re: DezzerSF

            Thanks for keeping us posted on what's new at Mikey's! Is it more crowded now?

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I have been noticing more of a lunch crowd as of late. Seems like word has been getting around.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Had a late lunch (about 1;30)last week and there were two other parties when we arrived. I had the Cubano sandwich and can't wait to get back for more. Put Sol to shame, and even vastly outshone the one at Birleys( my former fave, perhaps because it was my first). but all the elements were stellar. Also the lime vinaigrette and plantains two ways were remarkable. Thanks for the tip Melanie.

                Birley Cafe
                100 Pine St, San Francisco, CA 94111

              2. re: DezzerSF

                Picadillo is one of my favorites. That is the traditional way to make it, some cooks (my mom) add fried diced potatoes to it. In places that serve Cuban food I usually go with either the ropa vieja or the picadillo.

              3. Found two new items on the menu today, Pollo al Horno & Chuleta de Puerco.

                I had the latter and it came with two juicy medium thick pork chops with marinated grilled onions. The pork chops were nice and fresh, very porky. A really tasty dish that I could have easily saved half of for another meal.

                My coworkers both got the Pollo al Horno and they loved the marinade on the chicken thighs. One of them commented that Sol's version is dry, while Mikey's is juicy and moist.

                Of note, they now have their own homemade sweet spicy vinegar on the tables.

                2 Replies
                1. re: DezzerSF

                  I was there for lunch today too. Would you have been the group of three guys sitting in a booth on the right side as you come in? I (dark curly hair) was in the next booth with my mother (red hair and glasses). Anyway, it was my first time there, and I'm already planning what I'm going to have the next time I go back (if I can drag myself away from the Cubano...). It was really delicious with juicy pork and warm melty cheese. Best I've ever had. My mother loved her Puerto Rican steak sandwich with onions. The sauce on the table was wonderful, tasty but not overly spicy. Everyone was very sweet. Our waitress told us it was her third day working there. She needs to learn more about the food, but she did fine despite her new job jitters. I can't wait to go back!

                  1. re: The Librarian

                    Why yes that was us! My coworker overheard you talking to the owner about Chowhound. I've been eyeing the Puerto Rican steak sandwich as well.

                    Glad you enjoyed it!