My college dormitory in upstate New York had two large communal kitchens on each floor. It also had the International House, a wing set aside for students to celebrate and share differing cultural heritages. The International House used its communal kitchen to prepare large potluck dinners that attracted students from across campus.
But the magic in those kitchens happened on the weekends, when large groups of students, often hailing from South Florida or Latin American countries, came together for informal cooking sessions. And while the smells of garlic, onions and cumin permeating the hallways were quite different from my home, they made me pine for the Sunday suppers happening at my grandmother’s house a thousand miles away.
Cuban-born Lazaro Tenreiro, owner of Lazaro’s Cuban Cuisine in Roswell, grew up in a South Florida home where the kitchen was the largest room and such family cooking gatherings were the norm. After years of praise for his cooking skills, but with no formal restaurant experience, Tenreiro changed his life’s course and took the plunge to become a restaurant owner.
As much as he enjoyed the expanding dining scene in Roswell, he thought Cuban cuisine was long overdue. Gathering his family and his grandmother’s best recipes, Tenreiro opened Lazaro’s in Roswell last spring in a former home sitting just off Canton Street. The restaurant welcomes you with collections of family portraits mingling with cigar-boxes and Cuban art lining the lime-green walls.
With Tenreiro’s mom and other family members alongside him in the kitchen and his wife out front, Lazaro’s serves up traditional Cuban dishes that have won the hearts of Roswell regulars.
Tenreiro says his favorite part of this new endeavor is the time he spends each Monday handpicking ingredients from the Buford Highway Farmers Market.
Like any new restaurant, Lazaro’s has experienced its share of growing pains. Front-of-the-house missteps forced Tenreiro to entrust the kitchen to family while he trained and managed servers. With service issues resolved, Tenreiro returned to the kitchen to tweak a few dishes that fell below his standards in the interim.
The Cuban sandwich ($8.50 lunch) topped Tenreiro’s list for improvement. He transformed a soft and mushy sandwich into a more appealing specimen with a slick, pressed crackle. The latter version does justice to the Cuban bread flown in from South Florida twice each week. The pork fest tucked inside includes deli-style Black Forest ham and juicy lechon asado (roast pork), meshing with melty Swiss, a touch of mustard and sliced pickles.
The slow-roasted pork, cooked overnight and marinated in a cumin-spiked mojo sauce, needs no improvement. It comes as a stand-alone entree at dinner ($12) with rice, beans (go for the mixed version made with chorizo) and addictively sweet maduros (fried ripe plantains).
The tart mojo sauce used to marinate the pork also comes with crispy plantain chips as an appetizer ($5). I can’t get enough of the bold-flavored mojo, using the plantains as a neutral vehicle for the sauce, which is prepackaged and sold at the restaurant.
Lazaro’s also sells the mayonnaise-based dip accompanying the empanadas. This secret sauce, which necessitates a confidentiality agreement signed by employees (no joke), has a little kick to it and a hint of coconut. The coconut shines most when paired with the flaky beef empanada ($6 for two), which comes filled with raisin-studded picadillo (ground beef hash).
The raisins disappear when the hearty picadillo is served as an entree ($12.50); instead, the finely crumbled beef takes on a briny character with the addition of olives. Tenreiro says customers requested picadillo both with and without the fruit, so he chose to include the raisins in the stuffing for the house-made empanada pastry dough.
I’d recommend the ropa vieja (shredded beef, $15), a dish this family has down. Talk about the ultimate comfort food. This braised beef brisket, with thinly sliced onions and peppers in a stew-like beef and tomato broth, is perfect for winter days.
My husband’s favorite dish is the palomilla ($13), thin-pounded top sirloin steak marinated in mojo sauce and topped with sauteed onion slices. I think it could use a little tweaking. I’m not fond of the flavor of the beef itself and I suspect hubby was spellbound by the mojo.
Adding a full bar also might benefit the restaurant. Lazaro’s offers a list of wines and imported and domestic beers but a Mojito would be nice. For now, I enjoy a small glass of red wine sangria ($5) with bobbing fruit.
If you’re going for dessert, you’ll want to snag a creamy cafe con leche ($3.25), the perfect accompaniment to the slightly firmer version of flan served at Lazaro’s.
Every neighborhood needs a spot to get a home-cooked meal. At Lazaro’s, you can get one, Cuban-style.LAZARO’S CUBAN CUISINE