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Cheap Eats: Jose's Real Cuban Food

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The pan con lechon at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The pan con lechon at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Last week I felt something I never in my life believed I'd experience: respect for Guy Fieri.

For years, I've loathed the man for his leading role in the bro-ification of foodie-ism, a trend that has brought us lowlights like Epic Meal Time (I'm no vegetarian, but it's worth pointing out that animals died so they could make their gnarly meat castles and such) and the childish belief that bacon always improves a dish (it doesn't). I've never liked "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," Fieri's show, mainly for its X-treme approach to eating and the way it equates big with tasty, and I'll admit I reveled in The New York Times' brutal takedown of his Times Square eatery. I'm not a fan.

But then people I trusted started telling me about Jose's Real Cuban Food — a Bradenton restaurant featured on Fieri's show in late 2011. Yeah, yeah, it was on the Food Network, they said, but it's legit.

They were right.

Black beans and rice at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Black beans and rice at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

From the moment I pull up a seat at the bar, I love the place. The kitchen is splayed out in front of me. Metal pots stuffed with meat burble away, while a server quickly lays out some of the place's specialties. I'm a first-timer, and like all first-timers, I'm immediately treated to a tablespoon-sized sample of Jose's signature roasted pork shoulder.

That meat is the sole ingredient in the restaurant's pan con lechon ($7.95) and the main star of its Cuban sandwich ($7.95, $4.75 for half) and I can see why they showcase it. The pork has been braised till it falls apart into strings at the first poke of a fork. It's dense, juicy and light as a pillow, all at the same time. Do I want the pan con lechon or the Cuban? I know I'm eating alone, but I'll take both.

From "Order up!" to my plate arriving takes about 30 seconds (the service at Jose's is outstanding) and I dig in. The meat is so juicy it makes the bread soggy, but I don't even care. I add a little salt and a dash of Rickey's hot sauce, and that's all she wrote. I opted for a lunch special, which at $7.95 gives me half of the pan con lechon and a bowl of black beans and rice. That side dish tastes great — a subdued, starchy counterpoint to the rest of the meal, livened up with the addition of raw chopped onion.

That Cuban is excellent, too. It combines that same roasted pork with ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles into a dense package. And it's enormous — enough for lunch and dinner both.

The yucca frita at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

The yucca frita at Jose's Real Cuban Food / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

I can't not get fried yucca ($3.95). It may sound strange, but I think I like yucca more than French fries. Something about the chewy starch, dipped in a creamy, spicy sauce, makes my toes curl.

Jose's bills its golden cans of Materva as "Cuban 'Weed' Soda," and I'm crushed to find out it's not what I thought it was. (Hey, I've got a medical condition.) But the beverage is still delicious, a mate-based soft drink that shares an aftertaste with, oddly enough, Red Vines.

Cruising home, sipping the soda, I ask forgiveness for judging Fieri so harshly. I certainly haven't become anything so enthusiastic as a fan, but I'm happy the man introduced the world to Jose's.

Jose's Cuban sandwich / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Jose's Cuban sandwich / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Watch the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives segment on Jose's here:

Jose's Real Cuban Food
8799 Cortez Road W., Bradenton
795-4898 or josesrealcubanfood.com

This is the umpteenth entry in a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature on Cheap Eats, comment below, email me at cheapeatssrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: September 12, 2013
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