I like the way downtown is shaping up again in Richmond. The areas that used to be hopping in the days of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers slowly are coming back to life with one-of-a-kind stores and tiny, trendy eateries. The area of Grace and Broad streets is a wealth of ready-to-be-discovered establishments.
Kenn-Tico Cuban Bar & Grill, a larger version of a downtown lunch cart, starts off on the right path. The bar is good for a cocktail after work and the space is large enough for a quick sandwich during lunch hours.
Entering the restaurant, I notice writing on the wall — customers touting great experiences there. I concur and disagree with their assessments. The service is slow but exacting. Mojitos are painstakingly made: Measurements for blackstrap rum and fresh mint from an indoor plant make a fresh, aesthetically pleasing cocktail. Croquettes are chewy and composed poorly on one occasion and perfectly balanced and warm on another. The stuffed potatoes never make the grade with a chalky aftertaste that's irksome. Chicken salad is average, covering light Cuban bread that I'm happy to see repeated in other dishes.
Of the mains, classic Cuban pork (lechon asado, $9.95) stands out with a light marinade of lime and garlic on tender chunks, although fattier than I expected. Ropa vieja ($11.95), a familiar dish made of shredded flank steak in a garlic and tomato sauce, is gushy with overcooked peppers. Dynamic flavor is there and with a little less simmering this dish would be spectacular. Fried chicken chunk, appropriately named, is overrun with garlic topping. When that's removed, the chicken is supremely tender. Using joint pieces of the bird, this dish is marinated and fried, layering acidic and slippery flavor.
Each entree is served with two sides and a salad. I pounce on the light, crispy thin tostones. With just a bit more salt, they're an exceptional rendition of fried plantain. The sweet version is conversely unfulfilling — plain and tasteless. Both versions of yucca, fried and boiled, are the same, especially when dipped in the spicy opaque sauce. The white rice with black beans ($2.45) tastes like it may be missing some of the advertised bacon and spices, surprising because everything else is bursting with garlic. I continue to be drawn to the black bean soup and its easy, addicting flavor. Crushed black beans make a huge, simple statement in Kenn-Tico's recipe and need no adornment.
The salad accompanying each entree is a mixture of forgettable chopped tomato and romaine, but be wary of the homemade vinaigrette: With so much garlic it actually bites. Sandwiches are served on the same Cuban bread as appetizers — soft and unassuming. I love the pan con lechon ($6.50). Uncomplicated, it comes stuffed with the same entree pork and onions.
Dishes are portioned well for the price and allow room for something sweet. I try the flan, traditional caramel custard, and am astounded at the denseness of the generous square. The only detracting feature of this silky and upscale rendition is the garnish of a jarred maraschino cherry. With more consistency, especially at dinner, Kenn-Tico will give another welcome leg up to an aspiring area. Bring mints. S
Kenn-Tico Cuban Bar & Grill ($-$$)
204 E. Grace St.
Lunch, dinner and bar Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.