A quick show of hands here: How many SoCal cities have a resident Cuban restaurant? Not many, eh? Well, Glendale stands tall in this regard. Mambo’s Café, at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Western Avenue, serves lunch and dinner, with live music two nights a week. Even the Versailles chain, the standard for Cuban cuisine among Los Angeles residents, can’t boast a music schedule.
Pull into the parking area that buffers the one-story building from the street traffic and you get the idea that Mambo’s is a one-of-a-kind operation. The building, in fact, was originally a gas station called Marty’s Garage.
Sitting back significantly off the sidewalk gives Mambo’s the vague feeling of entering a roadhouse. Inside, it’s cozy, with a seating capacity of about 50. The staff is friendly and solicitous; they dote on the requests of the diners. You see a couple of families, a group of older adults, some young men meeting after work for a meal, and even a couple sharing a romantic meal.
Raul Gonzalez was 21 when his parents opened Mambo’s in 1988. He helped his parents build the business and oversees the operation with the hawklike attention to detail that ensures repeat business.
The menu is moderately priced. Entrée platters are never more than $11. While diners review the menu, the waitress brings a complimentary basket of warm bread strips and sauce made with tomato, jalapeno, cilantro, garlic and salt— think tomatillo with tang and a kick.
Mambo’s chicken dinner is something of a flagship dish and is a good place to start. The hot plate carries a full chicken breast garlanded with onion rings. Unlike other Cuban eateries, the garlic in Mambo’s chicken won’t threaten to overwhelm the senses. Put a fork into the meat and it literally falls away from the bone. It’s moist and a small cup of Mambo’s sauce is thoughtfully provided. Past its soy base and garlic, the staff is mum on the rest of the ingredients. A mound of buttery white rice and a side dish of black beans are standard here, as they are in all Cuban restaurants. Maduros (that’s plantains, to you) ring the edge of the plate. But these don’t have the almost waxy exterior of the fried banana slices served elsewhere. No, Mambo’s maduros are sweet and melt in the mouth.
It’s Thursday night, one of the two evenings in the week when Mambo’s hosts performances, and the room starts to take on more listeners than diners. Take a break from your conversation and you realize that one of the women sitting across the table from you is Susan Stamberg, for many years hostess of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.” Actor Tommy Hicks and singer Julie Kelly can also be spotted.
Judy Wexler is featured tonight. A pixie in a sheath dress, she’s a jazz singer known for her pursuit of worthy, yet seldom-performed material. Singing tunes like “They Say It’s Spring,” “Bye Bye Country Boy” (a favorite of the late Blossom Dearie), “You Better Love Me While You May,” and Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I,” Wexler needn’t fear her setlist being duplicated.
As with her current album, “Under a Painted Sky,” (JazzedMedia), Wexler works with some of the finest SoCal musicians. Keyboardist Jeff Colella heads the fine rhythm section of bassist Kevin Axt and drummer Dan Schnelle. They surround her quietly intense delivery, supplying harmonic choices and rhythmic stimulation. Wexler and company offered musical dessert as a perfect conclusion to an excellent meal.
Where: Mambo’s Cafe, 1701 Victory Blvd., Glendale
When: Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closes at 11 p.m. Tues. and Thurs.); live music Tues. and Thurs., 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Contact: (818) 545-8613, www.mambosla.com
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.