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When the temperature plummets, I find myself glancing at menus posted in windows, sniffing exhausts for the scent of chile and the warm molasses odor of rum, in search of a vacation on a plate. My local standbys, with their warming soups and aromatic jerk, won’t do because I like my culinary getaway to be both elegant and some kind of change. So during the first January cold snap, I found myself walking a Forest Hills strip I thought I’d picked clean when sunshine-yellow walls and tall artificial palms caught my eye.
Entering Cabana was like falling into a ripe mango: Puerto Rican devil masks dotted the walls along with paintings of palm-fringed beaches and markets bristling with breadfruit and papaya. The salsa rhythms on the box also drummed up thoughts of sunny climes and the solicitous staff had the easy grace of the tropics. I’d barely shed my multiple layers of woolens when I was sipping a Corona and nibbling on a mound of greens topped with chunks of ripe avocado and bits of red onion in a richly tangy vinaigrette ($8). The luncheon offerings included classics like pollo alajillo ($9 at lunch). My friends consulted the waiters and decided on the two daily specials: a chicken and shrimp ($17.95) and a tangerine-glazed salmon ($17.95). Expecting the usual fried fowl topped with a ride-in-the-front-of-the-car-your-breath-stinks sauce, I was pleasantly surprised to find two pieces of pounded chicken breast in a lime-infused wash of garlic, white wine, and parsley. The side cone of yellow rice and a small bowl of black beans pungent with cilantro were the perfect antidote for my winter blues. My friends also fared well. One scaled a tower that alternated cumin-scented grilled yardbird and juicy jumbo crustacean atop a mound of orange rice anchored by fried plantain. The other merengued to sweet citrus notes played against unctuous fish and coconut-flecked rice. When we were through, it was three forks versus a massive brownie topped with a coconut ice cream that tasted homemade ($4.95). Fortified and rewrapped, we headed off with the taste of the tropics dancing in our heads.
The next temperature dip found me under the palms again. Instant sunshine came in the form of a large pitcher of sangria ($15.50). I stayed in chicken mode, wanting to see what the kitchen would do with Dominican chicharrones de pollo ($11), while jerk pork ($12) and Argentine churrasco ($16) tempted my friends. Mine proved a classic rendition of a dish I first tasted in the countryside outside of La Romana in the southern Dominican, crisp bits of lime and spice-marinated fried chicken served around a ring of orange rice with the familiar complement of creamy pink beans at the center. The pieces of pounded pork drizzled with a sneakily hot molasses-thick sauce wouldn’t have been recognized as jerk in Kingston, but they were mighty tasty. The marinated rings of red onion and mossy-green mix of chimichurri offset the chewy-tender char of the skirt steak to pampas perfection.
This time no dessert, for the cold hand of winter duties could no longer be avoided. All vacations, even culinary ones, must come too soon to an end.