PLANO – Every table's taken on Monday at lunch, when the Cuban sandwiches are flying fast and furious. On a Saturday night, spiffy bow-tied waiters scurry about, delivering platters of camarones al ajillo (garlicky shrimp), or lechón (slow-roasted pork). The tiny dining room can't contain all comers: Outside on the patio, hungry would-be diners wait for tables.
One of the hottest restaurants on Plano's burgeoning dining scene is a place I'll bet you've never even heard of: the Latin Pig. I know, right?! Who (besides a vegan) could resist the name?
At one big table, celebrants have brought their own wine glasses: Yes, this mom-and-pop establishment is BYOB – and it charges no corkage fee.
The charming spot holds down a smidgen of decidedly un-prime real estate in a strip mall at the corner of Custer and Parker Roads. The walls are decorated with colorful paintings and photos of Cuban street scenes; jazz with a Latin clave beat sets a festive mood.
Mom and pop are Ana Castillo Guerrero and John Guerrero; Ana's mom serves as chef. Also named Ana Castillo, she's an El Salvador native who moved to New Jersey, where she wound up working at a Cuban restaurant, "which is where she met my father," says the young Ana. A Cuban immigrant, Ana's dad was chef there, and taught his wife all his family's recipes.
Who (besides a vegan) could resist the name?
I fall in love with the place the first time I stop in, for lunch. Hard to decide between a Cubano (Cuban sandwich) and a lunch special, especially when one of the choices is lechón -- for which the restaurant gets its name -- for $5.99. I choose both. (Ha! I've got a guest who'll share.) Traditionally lechón is a slow-roasted suckling pig; chef Castillo uses a pork shoulder (also known as picnic roast or pork butt) in her tiny kitchen -- and nails it; the modestly sized portion is flavorful and tender, delicious with congri (rice, black beans cooked together; here it includes pork) and maduros, thick slices of pan-fried ripe plantain.
The Cubano, meanwhile, is everything it should be: roast pork, ham, pickles and Swiss cheese, sandwiched in crusty bread in the right proportions. The bread is a crusty French bread custom-made by a local bakery (Castillo Guerrerro won't say which one) for the restaurant. Order it "Floridian" and you get mustard and mayo. With or without, it works.
The menu's the same for lunch and dinner, and the place is just as appealing for either.
There's not a huge selection of starters, but those I sample are excellent. Chicharrones here are fried chunks of pork rib and rind, salty, rich and crunchy; you can get them on a big platter with slices of salchichón (summer sausage) browned in a pan, plus exceptional tostones – rounds of green plantain, smashed and fried twice to make crisp chips – and equally impressive (greaseless, tender inside) slabs of fried yuca, plus lime wedges, hot sauce and mojo (garlic-citrus) sauce. My Cuban-American friend Manny frowns a little when he sees the dollop of sour cream crowning a dish of "loaded" yuca ("My mom never used sour cream," he says) and that the picadillo does without raisins. But he comes around to the charms of the dish – those same fried yuca slabs topped with picadillo (ground beef sautéed with peas, onions, diced carrots and string beans, and pimento-stuffed olives) and a minted tomato salsa.
The picadillo also makes an appearance on a sampler plate, a nice choice if you're having trouble committing to a main course among the myriad pork, beef, chicken, goat, seafood and vegetarian dishes. It's joined by pollo guisado (stewed chicken with potatoes and carrots) and lechón, plus the rice of your choice, white, congri or arroz con gandules, yellow rice with pigeon peas, and maduros.
But there's something luxurious about digging into a big plate of that tender, juicy lechón dressed with sautéed onions. Manny insists on white rice with that, along with a side of black beans - a capital idea.
My favorite dish so far, though I've only begun to scratch the surface of the extensive menu (which also includes Puerto Rican mofongos and other dishes), is chilindrón de chivo, or goat braised with tomatoes, peppers and more. Castillo's is wonderfully soulful, the tender, flavorful bone-in chunks bathed in rich, dark sauce.
If all that is sounding too rich and meaty, consider camarones al ajillo – shrimp in garlic sauce. Maybe not as soulful as the goat, but it's nicely prepared.
The decision-making pressure is somewhat relieved come dessert-time: It's pastelitos, pastelitos or pastelitos. Castillo is something of a laminated pastry genius, and these buttery treats, as flaky as great croissants, are filled with tangy guayaba (guava), or cheese, or both – absolutely dreamy with a cortadito, one of those sweet, strong little Cuban espressos.
My fingers are crossed that the Guerreros land the space they're trying to nab in West Plano to open a second – much larger – location. There they'd like to offer Cuban breakfast (best time for those pastelitos), bake their own Cuban bread for the Cubanos and serve alcohol. "Imagine," says Castillo Guerrero. "Frozen mojitos."
Oh, and the lechón will be whole suckling pigs, roasted on a rotisserie.
I am so totally there.
The Latin Pig
Price: $$ (starters $3.99 to $16.99; sandwiches $5.99 to $20.99; main courses $9.99 to $22.99; lunch specials $4.99 to $6.99; desserts $1.99 or $15 for a dozen pastelitos)
Service: Spiffy, bow-tied waiters are attentive and helpful with the menu.
Ambience: The small dining room, with four booths on one side and close-set tables on the other, feels like a casual Cuban diner in Miami or New York. Attention to detail (ocher walls, colorful Cuban paintings and photos) give it warmth and charm.
Noise level: The music is played at a reasonable volume, so conversation is easy even when the place is full.
Location: 3131 Custer Road (at Parker Road), Plano; 972-985-9760; thelatinpig.com
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of six and more
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: No alcohol. BYOB, no corkage fee.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50