In between the pancake houses, fudge shops, and airbrush t-shirt stores lined up along the Parkway in Pigeon Forge, there sits a small Cuban cafe in an aging strip mall. It's called Smokies Cuban Cafe, and it's probably one of the best kept secrets in Sevier County.
After last weekend's discovery of Rocky's Jamaica Sunrise in Maryville, I've been on a quest to find good ethnic food in and around my little Southern hometown. This weekend I wanted Cuban. But Cuban like I had in Miami -- and hope to one day have in Cuba. There's a place near my house called La Cabaña, and it's decent. Good enough to satisfy a craving, but still missing that special "sabor" from the dishes I had in Little Havana a couple of summers ago.
I thought perhaps this would be a good weekend to try out the Aroma Cafe. It's the Cuban place in Maryville a couple of blocks down from Rocky's. I've heard from friends that Aroma Cafe has amazing guava empanadas. But instead of Maryville, the hubs and I found ourselves in Pigeon Forge, and thanks to Yelp and a glowing recommendation from a friend, we ended up at Smokies Cuban Cafe for dinner. (We'll have to try Aroma next time.)
Smokies is small. There are a few stools near the counter by the cash register, and there are only a handful of tables. A poster of Havana hangs on the wall, and the outside window has photos of all the food available on their menu. We read on Yelp that if you go to Smokies, you have to order the beef empanadas. So we decided that a beef empanada would be a good way to start dinner. I wasn't sure if we should each have our own empanada, but the waitress assured us that one empanada could feed two hungry people. And that wasn't a lie.
The empanada came out freshly fried and piping hot. We had to wait a minute before biting into it. And once I took a fork to split up the pastry, the ground beef filling spilled out, and it smelled so good. The pastry was perfectly crispy and had the right amount of flakiness, and the beef was so well seasoned and packed with flavor.
Next up was an order of yuca fries. They arrived in a basket, all golden and crispy, and served with a cilantro cream sauce for dipping. And I didn't wait to start eating them up. The yuca fries were crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, the way a good French fry should be; and they tasted even better when covered in that cilantro sauce.
For a side order, I thought this was a huge serving. The yuca was cut thick, similar to steak fries, and we ate every single fry (along with our entrees) like total gluttons.
Then came the main courses. I ordered the ropa vieja (one of my favorite things to eat!) with plantains and rice and black beans. Talk about "smack yo mama" good! The ropa vieja was the way I remembered it tasting at La Carreta in Miami. Maybe even a little bit better. The tomato sauce was tangy and rich, and the shredded beef was tender and sucked in the flavor from the onions, peppers, and herbs. It tasted like it had been simmering all day, just waiting for me to walk in and order it. (By the way, does anyone know why this dish is called "ropa vieja"? "Old clothes" in English? I'm very curious!)
The plantains were soft and nicely caramelized, and I spooned the black beans over the white rice and sprinkled some house vinegar sauce that looked like Filipino atsara (a.k.a. papaya reslish) all over it. The side dishes reminded me of breakfast at the Melia Cariari in Costa Rica. When we asked the owner what was in the vinegar sauce, he said, "I put whatever I find in there." Then he pointed to different places in the restaurant, smiled, and said, "It's a secret."
I have to rank dinner at Smokies Cuban Cafe as one of my favorite foodie experiences in East Tennessee. The cafe is family owned and operated, and you feel like family when you're there. Everything was made fresh to order, tasted authentic, and seasoned and spiced just right. It's a hidden gem at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, and it's worth the drive and the Parkway/Dollywood traffic to eat there.