Grub Scout: Sniff out authentic Cuban flavors at Alcoa's Aroma Cafe

Aroma Cafe

  • Food: * * * *
  • Service: * * * *
  • Atmosphere: * * * 1/2
  • Overall: * * * *
  • Address: 2570 E. Broadway, Maryville
  • Phone: 865-982-4933
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays
  • Seating: First come, first served

A reader tip sent me sniffing in the direction of Aroma Cafe in Maryville. I was told that the small, family-owned restaurant had been serving authentic Cuban cuisine since last spring. Interestingly, another Cuban-food restaurant in Blount County had come up short in its effort to win over the locals, so I was quite curious about what this new East Broadway establishment had cooking.

Admittedly, the building is a little scruffy looking when viewed from the parking lot, but once we stepped inside, we felt comfortably at home in the cozy main dining room, which only has three or four tables. Various tchotchkes and other artifacts of Cuban-island decor are scattered about the walls, shelves and counter spaces, and the sound system and flat-screen TV fed us a steady diet of Cuban music and scenery throughout our visit.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the female half of the husband-wife proprietor team. She informed us that the adjoining room was being converted into overflow dining to accommodate the weekday lunch crowds, which evidently are Aroma Cafe's bread and butter. At least the locals seemed to be giving this place a shot.

The menu offerings are not overwhelming in number. Staples include empenadas in several varieties (beef, guava and cream cheese, ham croquetas) and papas rellenas - a mixture of mashed potatoes and seasoned beef (picadilla) that is deep-fried and topped with more beef.

Unfortunately, the kitchen had already eighty-sixed both items for the day. We arrived only a half-hour before closing, so many of the goodies prepared that morning had already been snatched away by the lunch patrons.

We still had a couple of options remaining, however. Picadilla was still available, so I was able to get a plate of that, served over white rice with my choice of beans - black, red or garbanzo. I went with the third. The Spouse got the daily special, half a Cuban sandwich served with a side of black beans and rice.

There have been some instances when I have been underwhelmed by Cuban dishes, but that was not the case on this visit. The seasoned beef was bold in flavor while still understated in its spiciness, and I went bonzo for the beans and rice. The Cuban sandwich was a masterpiece, featuring Swiss cheese, ham and pork meat that's roasted on site. The trademark mustard and pickle were tangy accents to a hearty sandwich that is, as WBIR-TV's Ken Schwall described during his visit to Aroma Cafe, "smooshed together" panini style.

I had enough left over on my plate to fill a doggy bag (or Styrofoam box, in this case), and based on The Spouse's half-sandwich, I suspect a full-size Cuban sandwich would have also resulted in a take-home serving. Even better, we got out for only $16, which included an order of homemade flan. The flan wasn't exactly the highlight of this meal for us, but that wouldn't stop me from going back again.

Those seeking a fully authentic Cuban-cuisine experience also can choose from several brands of Cuban sodas, including Iron Beer, which was described to me as a cream soda/Dr. Pepper-style concoction. (I didn't try it myself because I can't stand Dr. Pepper, but I'm told it's quite popular.)

I will definitely try to work Aroma Cafe into my personal, non-Grubbing rotation of restaurants. And when I do, you can be assured I'll arrive for lunch, because the early bird always gets the empanada. Or something like that.

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Comments » 1

bodgertn writes:

Someone did it a misjustice comparing Ironbeer to cream soda and Dr. Pepper. Like you, I can't stomach Dr. Pepper, (and I won't even mention my reaction to cream soda) but I can't get enough of Ironbeer. Give it a try the next time you stop in at the Aroma Cafe - the only place I have found Ironbeer in Knoxville... so far. That, and the great food, keeps me going back to "The Aroma."

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