Review #5- Pambiche

Where:  Pambiche, 2811 NE Glisan St., Portland, OR

Cuban food is one of those things I THINK I know more about than I do.  There’s a stereotype to be sure- rum, mojitos, lots of pork, absurdly powerful and sweet coffee drinks, and pressed sandwiches. As for Cuban sweets, I guessed there was a lot of dulce de leche (or caramelized sweetened condensed milk,) coconut, palm sugar, and tropical fruits.

Lucky for me, I got to find out just how right (and wrong) I was.

My coworkers Victoria, Roy, Gwen, and I decided to hit up Pambiche after work a few weeks back. Roy had never been there, and wanted to try it out before floating it as the site for a potential date. I had been there once before briefly with some friends, and was eager to try more of the menu.

Pambiche was only a couple blocks from our cafe, but good God you could see that building from Mars. The entire front of the building is beautifully painted with bright, vivid colors, reminiscent of Cuban art and architecture. The lower floor and basement are given to the restaurant, and yet the actual dining room (even with the sidewalk seating) is extremely close and intimate. Bright colors, artwork, musical instruments, and Cubanismo music surround you, making the small room somehow feel more cramped but its atmosphere light and airy.

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“How will I know I’m at the right place?” Well, if you are walking down the street and suddenly go blind, you’re there.

PictureMichelada. Yes, I had two.

I show up on my bike- Roy had been finished for a while and would get the table, while Gwen, Victoria and I followed up after. He had just gotten water when I sat down and we looked at the cocktail menu while we waited on the girls. 

No mojitos. Sure, their bartender could make me one if you asked- they had a full bar. A Pambiche-recipe mojito though? No way, esé.
What they’ve got is bright and exciting cocktails- including my newfound-favorite summer cocktail, the Michelada, or “Bloody Beer, a tall refresher of spicy tomato juice and cold lager, on the rocks.


PictureRopa Vieja

We arrive in time for happy hour, and the menu is playing their hits. Roy goes for the empañadas, while I plump for the ajiaco (a garlicky pepperpot stew) and their Ropa Viejo- long-simmered shredded beef and veg, served with rice and peas.
The girls arrive and make their choices. A baker’s pay isn’t the best and we stick to the happy hour menu- but when it lands, it’s more than enough. We descend like vultures- everyone snatching a little of everything. 
Around us, waiters whip through the small room, barking at each other in rapid-fire Spanish. No, this is NOT a theme restaurant. Pambiche is Hispanic-owned, Hispanic-managed, and Hispanic staffed. If you are not Hispanic and want a job, a requirement IS apparently fluency in the language. Peeking up occasionally from my plate, I try to follow the chatter with my limited Duolingo- based skills. They are barely needed though- I’ve worked in the field long enough to know what the waiters and cooks are yelling at each other.
“Detras!”
“Cuidado, calliente!”
“Uno mas?”
“Putamadre!”

PictureAjiaco

The food seems to dissolve from the plates. Victoria and Gwen go in for the beet slaw that comes with most dishes- I’ve never been a fan of beets in ANY fashion, so I leave them to it. Roy is enjoying a little bit of everything, but seems content with the empanadas he’d ordered. Meanwhile, I dig into as much of the ajiaco and ropa vieja as I can get my hands on. I am a simple soul, and peasant food gets me every time. The pure homely goodness of a pepperpot stew or gravy-drowned lump of meat will always go straight to my heart.

Postes (desserts) are called for, and the baker hats all come on. Pambiche is known for their excellent subterranean Cuban bakery, and we’re all eager to dissect (and devour) their intricate selection of sweets. Against the choices of flan, and their picture-perfect chocolate “Cuban Cigar,” the communal choice is Brazo Gitano, or “Gypsy Arm-” a corn flour sponge cake roulade with pineapple lime marmalade and powdered sugar. It comes out light and lovely, and not nearly as saccharine-sweet as one might expect. Gwen is especially enthusiastic, as we all eagerly try to dissect this apparently traditional dessert.  Conjecture flies- “It’s gluten free, so cornflour… but how did they get it so light and spongy?!”
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Brazo Gitano- a.k.a. Gwen’s new Death Row dessert

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A Cuban Cigar that even nonsmokers can enjoy.

The bill is paid and we depart- Victoria giving Gwen a ride, Roy on his own, and me on my bike. As the evening sets in and I wander outside, I almost get glaucoma from the setting sun on the bright colors of the building. 

I clearly need to eat more Cuban. This kind of education I can REALLY get behind.

WHEN: Pambiche is open 7 days a week, and seat throughout the day. Toward the evenings it can get a little crowded and they don’t take reservations, so expect a bit of a wait if you show up late. 

WHY: Because you want to try something Hispanic, but are burned out on burritos, tacos, and Tex Mex and want more of a Caribbean flare. More than that, you want to feel relaxed and easy while surrounded by brightness and activity.

HOW: Walk right in! Check out their website for their menus, as well as catering options.