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The Black Bean brings Cuban to 'Burgh outpost

If you were trying to expand a small chain of Cuban restaurants, Pittsburgh probably isn't an obvious place to start.

There aren't a lot of Cubans here, for starters. Of course, that doesn't mean that Cuban food can't work here -- its unique blend of Caribbean, Spanish and African cuisines is distinctive, but quite accessible to even less-adventurous eaters. It's just that there isn't a built-in market for it.

The Black Bean mini-chain's first location outside of Florida landed in the Steel City largely due to a personal connection.

"We have a friend -- he's the actual franchise guy from Florida," says Lanie Chen, who owns the Black Bean with her husband. "He thought he wanted to spread it out to more of the country than Florida. If you've been to Florida, you'll see a lot of Cuban restaurants."

"We have a little chain in Pittsburgh (Flamers Charbroiled Chicken and Burgers), and have had other restaurants. Since he knows we're good franchise people, he wanted us to try it in Pittsburgh. We were like, 'OK, let's try it!' "

They picked Oakland for the diversity of its student population, starting out in a hard-to-find location on Semple Street. Quickly, demand indicated they would need a bigger space, so they moved to Atwood Street.

The Black Bean isn't much to look at. Up a short, well-worn flight of stairs is a long, thin, barebones room, with only a few hand-painted Cuban travel posters for color. In the back, there's another small room with a dance floor, blaring Cuban music at dinnertime.

The food, however, more than makes up for it.

"People who know Cuban food come down and love it, especially the Cuban students," Chen says. "They're like, 'Oh, this tastes like a homecooked meal from my grandma.'"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the classic meaty Cuban ($6.95) sandwich seems to be the runaway hit, piled with bolo ham, seasoned pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, pressed tightly inside long, thin, crispy flat bread. Another top seller is the Veggie Cuban ($5.95), which features bell peppers, pickles, cucumbers, garlic butter, lettuce and tomatoes and a special tangy sauce. A Media Noche ($5.95) is a Cuban served on a distinctive sweet bread.

Other customers have warmed up to some of the more unusual items on the menu. Yuca Con Mojo ($3.95), for instance, is boiled yuca (Cassava root), cut into steak fries, soaked in sour orange juice mojo sauce, topped with fresh garlic and onions. Another favorite appetizer is Papas Rellenas ($2.95) -- mashed potato and seasoned ground beef balls, fried until golden.

"To learn how to cook the food is very simple," Chen says. "But there's some things you can't really find in Pittsburgh. When we're out of something, we're out."

"Soon we'll have a liquor license," Chen says. "We're planning on selling six-packs and hope to have a bar once we get a bartender."

The dance floor in the back may also start to get some business, soon.

"We're planning on Fridays and Saturdays, having a DJ up there -- and opening later, until 2:30 in the morning," Chen says.

Additional Information:

The Black Bean

Location: 239 Atwood St., Oakland.

Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. daily. Major credit cards are accepted.

Details: 412-621-2326

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