Most Americans haven’t been to Cuba.
That means their tastebuds haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the creative cooking that comes out of the nation’s paladares, independent businesses established as the communist nation started to open up its economy. Cubans are still greatly limited in their liberties and, while they have figured out how to love their lives, want for more. But in the limitations of their day-to-day lives, the inventive cuisines can absolutely
Thankfully, Grand Rapids has a nice slice of Cuban cuisine at Danzón, 1 Carlton Ave. SE. (Editor’s Note: after our visit, Danzón shifted to include other Latin American fare and changed its name from Danzón Cubano to Danzón Cocina.)
Unfortunately for Danzón and some its neighbors, like Schnitz Deli, summer business was slowed immensely by a major construction project cutting down Fulton Street. That construction likely kept its dining room sparse during prime dinner hours for several months.
The menu is full of items one might find at paladares, including arroz con pollo and arroz con mariscos (rice with chicken or seafood), faca vieja (fried beef) or lechon asado (braised pork with rice and beans).
All four dishes are full of flavor and executed well. The meats are tender and juicy, often with a bit of a kick, but not in an overtly spicy way. The rice is moist and savory, full of veggies to help fill up nutrients.
Each dish is draped with a caramelized plantain, a perfect sweet way to help balance out the meal.
Speaking of plantains, Danzón’s sweet tostones are a great way to set the table for the meal to come. The slight sweetness inside the crunchy, salty crust help prepare the tastebuds for the flavors coming with the main dishes.
Also on the menu are a variety of a selection of tacos and the Cubano sandwich, both foods that aren’t often seen on the actual island but have become incredible ways to spread the flavors of Cuban culture. Other items include a Cuban Quesadilla, Havana Cheese-Steak and El Supremo Chicken Sandwich that could always draw an eye if you’re a regular.
But if it’s your first time, try to stay with the arroz, vieja or lechon dishes. You won’t be disappointed. Since Grand Rapids Magazine’s September visit, Danzón did alter its menu to include other Latin American fare, including Mexican soups, Brazilian beef dish Bauru, and several additions to its shareable section.
The menus is also full of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options for those looking to fit to a specific diet.
The restaurant does update its menu regularly, so pieces of change and you’ll find often find other familiar Cuban dishes like a tasty paella
Perhaps the most exciting piece of the menu are the drinks.
Two immediate drinks to grab on the menu are the Cuba Libre and mojito, two menu staples almost anywhere in the country. Both did not disappoint.
The Hemingway, a daiquiri similar to the one the famous author would sip on at Havana’s El Flordita. The Hemingway did stray a bit and is likely a tad sweeter than Papa would have preferred. There are other, more experimental cocktails that veer to excite tastebuds, like a Jalapeño Pineapple Margarita, the creamy, milkshake-like Dulce de Leche martini and the smoky mezcal-based Pablo Escobar.
The wine list features wines largely from South America, California and Michigan. Beer includes Michigan craft beer and the Spanish Estrella Damm pilsner.
The best bet for drinks? Stay with rum and light lagers.
While construction and COVID-19 has kept the dining room less lively than it might be otherwise, the décor pushes the Caribbean theme, with greenery and Cuban themed paintings throughout. A giant map of Cuba even greets diners on their way into the dining room. The speakers generally keep upbeat Caribbean or Caribbean-inspired music playing which is sure to put a smile on a diner’s face and a toe tapping or head boppin’.
While a stop at the dining room is well worth it, the restaurant also excels in the takeout and delivery world. Often Danzón offers free deliveries on Tuesday.
Danzón is a gem of a restaurant hidden for much of this year by construction. The flavors are often simple, but delicious and the cocktails strong enough to make you feel like you might just be 90 miles south of Key West.
This story can be found in the November/December 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.