I'm not real big on going out on a limb, but for Mamacita's I'll do it. This colorful, hidden-in-plain-sight spot on East Fremont Street has the best ropa vieja I've ever eaten.
If ropa vieja is Greek to you, know that it's actually Spanish, a traditional Cuban dish that translates roughly to "old clothes" for its resemblance to a pile of rags. It's beef -- seasoned, braised and shredded. I've had it in numerous restaurants in numerous cities (though not Havana, considering that pesky embargo and all) and while I can't say I've ever had bad ropa vieja, some versions definitely have been better than others. The ropa vieja ($11.95) at Mamacita's topped them all.
Why? Mainly because somebody took his time in preparing it, braising it for a long time over low heat. They also mixed in a large proportion of strips of red and green bell peppers, which add color and texture but, because the meat was generously seasoned (but don't think spicy-hot; we're talking onions and garlic and sofrito and tomato sauce), the pepper strips complemented it instead of overpowering it.
The entree included a bowl of black bean soup, a mound of white rice (which we, of course, mixed, in the moros y cristianos tradition) and a little pile of average salad that we pretty much skipped because everything else was so good.
And here's something that may be a little surprising about Mamacita's: It's both Cuban and Mexican. Why? I don't know if it's a mixed marriage or a fear that in Las Vegas, Cuban is not as mainstream as Mexican, but the dichotomy is reflected not only on the menu but also in the decor. One long wall of the restaurant is decorated in a Cuban motif, the other Mexican. It's a shiny-clean spot with a riot of bright color that melds the two themes nicely, and at no time did we feel there was an identity crisis here. And so we didn't find it at all disconcerting to be served tortilla chips (warm and thickish, possibly homemade) and two Mexican-style salsas (one hotter, the other with a lot of cilantro) instead of oh, maybe tostones, as we started our dinner.
We augmented the salsa-and-chips course with some guacamole ($2.95). At first blush it seemed thin and sort of undistinguished, but as we ate, we discovered that it had the hidden sort of kick (from chili peppers, no doubt) that will sneak up on you like a barefoot mugger.
We went Cuban for our other starter, with yuca frita ($3.95), or fried yuca root to you and me. It was well executed -- lightly salted, not greasy, and with crispy edges.
And Mexican for our other entree, two enchiladas with beans and rice ($9.95), for which we chose carnitas, tender sauteed pork. This one also was nicely seasoned, but the beans on the side were pinto and the rice yellow.
And a nice creamy-caramelly flan ($3.95) for dessert, which spans the two cultures.
Actually, much of our dinner could be said to span the two cultures; it depends on what part of Cuba or Mexico one is from, whence one's family hailed, etc. And another cross-cultural aspect is added when considering the atmosphere of the place. Along with the traditional Latin colors and design details there's a decided disco element -- two colored lighted disco balls rotating in the window, a rotating laser-cut thingamajig that projects mesmerizing light reflections and, the piece de resistance, a plasma screen that on the evening of our visit was showing a PBS disco special. (PBS and disco? Who knew?) And various neon elements make it clear that these people know they're in Las Vegas and revel in it.
My prediction: The Fremont East project will be a success if enough businesses are established there that have the enthusiasm of Mamacita's.
Not to mention a kickin' ropa vieja.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.