South American cuisine has been practically non-existent here in Lahore -- barring a few restaurants/cafes serving the same kind of tacos, nachos and quesadillas -- since a so-called Mexican restaurant shut down after a brief stint.

In early December 2019, Coco Cubano, a franchise of a Cuban-inspired Australian chain, opened its doors in Lahore off M.M. Alam Road. The exterior clearly does not reflect what you eventually get inside; the bright teal interior reflects the vibrant, eclectic culture and beaches of Cuba with street art sprawled on the walls in the courtyard, the wooden booths and lobby inside adorned with colourful paintings, picture frames and large shelves containing a variety of vintage objects depicting Cuba, a scooter parked at the entrance, the woodwork on the mezzanine all make for a hip, trendy café. The local music playing in the background and a showcase displaying Cuban cigars for sale completes the picture.

The menu is inspired by Cuban cuisine and anything but traditional, playing safe with tacos, burritos, quesadillas, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and a host of small and large plates. It also includes a careful selection of desserts and Cuban coffees and drinks.

When my friends and I visited recently, we decided to skip the small plates (appetisers) and went straight for the mains. The fish tacos didn’t come up to expectations: two soft tortilla shells filled with small crispy chunks of fish, a spicy chipotle aioli and slaw was light and would have made for a decent appetiser for two. It would help if Coco Cubano provided an option of crispy taco shells also.

The crispy crumbed Chicken Schnitzel topped with sesame seeds and served with French fries, a creamy cabbage slaw and a spicy mayo dip was in itself nothing to write home about, but the dip completely elevated an otherwise run-of-the-mill dish by contributing to the overall flavour profile.

The Beef and Turkey Sandwich consisted of tender pulled beef, some turkey bacon, pickles, spicy chipotle mayo and hints of a BBQ sauce. The sandwich was served with fries and the chipotle mayo on the side as well. The buns were lightly toasted and the mayo provided some kick to the subtly flavoured beef and bacon.

The Mushroom Rice Bowl was definitely the highlight of the entire meal. Mushroom, black beans, corn, avocado, baby spinach and parmesan cheese mixed in soft brown rice resembled precious jewels peeping through grains of sand. Not only was this plate of food colourful and vibrant, but delicious and aromatic as well.

We finished off our meal with the Dessert Tasting Plate where we got a taste of a handful of desserts on the menu. The platter consisted of crispy churros with vanilla sauce, apple pie pockets with chocolate and orange sauce, soft and fresh triple chocolate brownie slices with vanilla ice cream. A delightful end to an above average meal.

Coco Cubano might prove to be a great place to hang out over some coffee, bites and desserts – especially in the courtyard in pleasant weather, but the food needs a bit more thought – the small portion sizes don’t justify the prices, while the flavours need to reflect the cuisine they’re supposed to be echoing. However, this place holds a lot of promise. It would also be interesting to see what the future holds for this cuisine with the past not being too favourable for it.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020

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