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By Lora Arduser · December 22nd, 2004 · The Dish

Blowing into RAFFIE'S CAFE (1210 Main St., Over-the-Rhine; 513-721-2238; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday) from Cincinnati's first blustery winter-like day did a lot for my Monday frame of mind. The restaurant's cheerful colors and accommodating two-person staff are definite mood elevators. The small restaurant, located in the old space of Little Havana, is decorated in what I would call fish-tank colors. The walls are warm yellows and aqua blues and greens. The booths and tables sport a large floral print fabric, and the walls are adorned with maps of Cuba and a painting of Al Pacino as the Cuban Tony Montana in the remake of Scarface.

We immediately ordered two espressos, but being Cuban food novices (and forgetting my stint as an archaeologist in Mexico), I let my husband dump sugar into his mug before remembering Cuban coffee, like the coffee of many of our other southern neighbors, is presweetened when served.

Not to worry. Our host, cook and the establishment's owner, Rafael Baez Alvarez, immediately apologized and brought us a new coffee.

Raffie's menu is limited, but this isn't really a flaw since everything we had was good, hearty fare. There is a daily chef's special and a choice of three sandwiches: a traditional Cuban sandwich, a vegetarian option and fried catfish. My husband got the special, which was chicken fricassée with steamed white rice and a steaming bowl of soup beans ($6.50). What a bargain! The chicken was flavored with sofrito -- a mixture of garlic, onion, pepper, cumin and oregano -- as was the half-potato that accompanied the meal.

I went with the traditional sandwich ($4.25), a submarine-style layering of ham, roast pork, cheese and pickle on Cuban bread. This was pressed in a sandwich press until the ham, pork and pickles warmed in their own steam. While not completely traditional, the addition of mayonnaise at Raffie's made this concoction even more delectable, the pickle juice and mayo bonding as I bit into the crusty bread.

If you can save room, I strongly recommend one of the side dishes -- Empanadas ($2), fried pastries stuffed with ham and cheese or ground beef, or Papas Rellenas ($3), a mashed potato ball, breaded, stuffed with chicken, beef or veggie, then deep-fried. Raffie's also offers sweet dried Plantains ($2). These beautiful salty-sweet squashed flowers are best right out of the fryer, burnt fingers and all.



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