Lil' Cuban Cafe
7249 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway
Critic's star breakdown
- Food: 4.5 stars (out of five)
- Service: 4
- Atmosphere: 4
- Overall: 4
The Grub Spouse and I first noticed Lil' Cuban Cafe on our way through Townsend about a month ago and vowed we'd head back to try it soon. We fulfilled that promise on a recent weeknight.
At the time, the restaurant occupied a small cabin structure on the west end of town, although they were planning to relocate to the Trillium Cove shopping village at the other end of town within a few weeks.
The space we enjoyed was cozy and charming, with the most notable feature being the log-stump seats at most of the tables. There are even some taller stumps with tractor seats affixed to the top, lined up at a counter-seating area.
The families that run the place are of Cuban lineage, and bring the island's traditional recipes to their Townsend kitchen. We decided to start with the empanada of the day — picadillo (a mixture of ground sirloin, chorizo, diced ham and green olives in sofrito sauce) served piping hot in a crispy dough shell. The meat blend was excellently spicy though not excessively so.
Seven sandwiches are offered, including a picadillo-based creation and The Oliver, made with deep-fried, breaded sirloin steak and house mojo sauce. The Spouse loves a good Cuban sandwich and went with that instead. Lil' Cuban Cafe makes theirs in textbook fashion with spiced pork filet, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickle, mustard and chips, all pressed between slices of Cuban bread.
I wanted to try one of the platters and opted for the picadillo platter over the lechon asada (pork-based) and the papa relleno (a picadillo-filled potato ball). I wound up choosing black beans, yellow rice and tostones (deep-fried green plantains) as my three side items. Others include white rice, maduros (deep-fried ripe plantains) and yucca fries.
Meals are served in Styrofoam to-go containers, which is handy, because the portions are immense and definitely warrant a carry-home box. The sandwich was long and thick, and the ingredients were piled on in hefty heaps. More importantly, the flavor was outstanding. The pork in particular had distinctively spicy Caribbean overtones, and the bread was fresh.
Of course, with my platter, I got an even larger serving of picadillo, even though I picked out the whole green olives (which I can handle but don't prefer). The black beans were excellent, especially with the finally chopped red onion I was given for embellishment, and the three large tostone patties were helped immensely by a garlic and olive oil dressing. The yellow rice was another strong side choice.
Five unique homemade Cuban desserts are on the sweets menu, and while we debated getting the coco y queso crema (coconut in syrup on cream cheese and saltines), we went with the Dulcecito Cubanito — deep-fried Cuban bread squares covered in three sugars and sweet spices and topped with caramel and fresh fruit. We were already stuffed but managed to squeeze in some of this palate pleaser.
They even threw in a small sample of the coco y queso crema for future reference. The blend of sweet coconut and salty cream cheese and crackers was an interesting but not unpleasant combo.
Between the quality of the food, the multi-meal portions and the accommodating friendliness of the owners, I recommend without hesitation that you make the drive to Townsend for authentic flavors imported from south of that other border.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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