When you walk into the narrow storefront on Butler Street that holds Salud, you'll see -- and smell and feel -- remnants of its past as a neighborhood watering hole. The front room is dominated by a large bar with televisions blaring. A sandwich board advertises beer and burger specials, perhaps to lure the former patrons of Salac's Tavern. The smell of cigarettes -- which probably sunk deep into the bones of the building -- lingers.
And it is dark. Really, really dark.
I made the mistake of walking in on a day when that bright disk (I believe it's called the sun, but I'm no astronomer) made a long-anticipated appearance in that vast expanse of blue above (I think it's called sky? I could be wrong). The shock of the dark on a warm afternoon left me squinting, and the small table candle they provided did little to help.
But despite the ambiance, there are warm touches -- a mural of a dancing woman in the back, a friendly waiter who seem a bit misplaced in his dapper apparel. It made the cavernous environment, well, tolerable.
And despite the darkness, I decided I would not be deterred. I haven't eaten much Cuban food, but I've universally loved it: the tender braised beef of ropa vieja, the starchy sweet plantains, the Cuban sandwich with its salty ham and sour pickles.
Two intrepid diners -- my friend Megan and roommate Albert -- joined me on this foodie adventure. In the dimly lit dining room, we strained to see the menu, but it was mouth-watering.
We started with the empanada platter ($6), deep-fried pastries shaped like half-moons. They were scrumptious, with crispy outer shells and tender mushrooms inside. Megan snagged the sole ground beef-stuffed pastry and gave it two thumbs up.
For entrees, I went with the lechon ($12) -- roasted pig -- with thick chunks of plantains on the side. I'm no expert on Cuban food, but I'm accustomed to plantains being sweetened slightly with honey or sugar. This was a savory preparation, topped with too much salt and paprika. The meat fared slightly better -- thick slices of pork with healthy layers of fat were tender but dry and underseasoned.
Megan, on the other hand, eagerly ate the piccadillo ($12), seasoned ground beef served with a side of beans and rice. A New Orleans native, Megan knows good beans and rice and gave the entire dish a hearty endorsement. Albert, too, enjoyed the bacalao ($12), a nicely seasoned cod he called "quite tasty."
We rounded the meal off with flan ($4), a smooth, eggy custard topped with caramel sauce. The table's favorite was the tres leches cake ($5), a white cake topped with a cloud of whipped cream and soaked through with sweet cream. The cake was dry, but the dreamily sweetened liquid took the edge off a bit.
Despite the mishaps, it's clear that passion and love drive the operation. One of the men from the kitchen grinned broadly when he talked about his famous empanadas. The waiter was earnest and friendly. My dining companions took note, too.
"People were incredibly welcoming but ambiance could use some work," Megan said.
Now all they need is a little salt. And maybe some light.
Salud is at 4517 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412-605-0233.