I love bananas. Yellow Chiquita bananas precisely cut into rounds on my plate of arroz blanco y picadillo. Green plantains fried and flattened with the bottom of a coffee mug, then salted, especially if it’s the side dish to camarones enchilados. And, my favorite, ripe plantains, strange in color and frightening in texture, fried into a burnt sack of goodness. When the corners are a little crunchy and the insides melt in your mouth like fancy cheese, it brings me to tears. Seriously. Invite me over for maduros and watch the water works. But don’t just serve me three unless you too are part of the Cuban restaurant conspiracy.
It’s as if all of the Cuban restaurants returned from their yearly convention where they unanimously decided that tres maduros are exactly the correct amount to serve with an entree. Not one. Not five. Just three.
I wandered into the very small and quaint Ay Papa Qué Rico in Van Nuys hoping that the three-plantain-rule hadn’t tainted their completa, but…
I walked into the small cafeteria-style eatery and was enthusiastically invited to sit wherever I wanted. When I heard Celia Cruz’s Carnaval blasting from the flat screen, I chose a booth facing the TV so I could watch the concert. Only it wasn’t Celia singing. It was Patty Padilla whose voice is chillingly similar – so much so that for a moment I thought she was lip-syncing to Te Busco. The menu offered a similar surprise with only a small selection of Cuban dishes, a Colombian sausage and a healthy amount of Peruvian food, including arroz chaufa which almost swayed me. On the Cuban-side of the menu there’s a Cuban sandwich, un fricase de pollo, a media noche and of course the fire-grilled chicken, which they are most known for. I went for the ropa vieja ($12.99), which arrived as Padilla sang Toro Mata.
The completa was generously served with white rice, black beans, steamed vegetables, tortillas (chips and soft flatbreads) with a variety of sauces (salsa and jalapeño). And three maduros. Three. Not one. Not five. Just three.
These three maduros were each amazing. Equally. I cut them and strategically ate them so that my last bite would be the final little corner of the plantain, which paired perfectly to Padilla’s rendition of Yerbero Moderno.
The ropa vieja was excellent (although Gigi’s Bakery has it beat in taste and price), the beans were good (although La Cubana Restaurant is the undisputed frijoles champion), but the maduros will make you say, ay papa qué rico.
If you go: Ay Papa Qué Rico is located at 7344 Van Nuys Blvd in Van Nuys. Parking is at an adjacent lot, so watch out for signs. My dine-in experience was, of course, pre-Covid, but take-out and delivery options are still available.
What to have: First and foremost, Ay Papa Qué Rico is the home of the fire-grilled chicken. While I was there the guy behind me ordered half a chicken and when his plate was brought to the table I had a serious case of food envy. So, I’ll be back for the famous chicken, arroz chaufa and whenever I have another ropa vieja craving. Obviously, the real winner here are the maduros, which you can order as an appetizer if you’re not having a completa.
Extras: Ironbeer and Materva are available, but no sign of Cuban cafesito. There’s a bakery area, where pastelitos, flans and tres leches are displayed.