You know, even without a single Cuban in sight, Media Noche isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s more than half good. I grew up eating Cuban food in L.A., and while I’ve never been to Cuba, I have spent some time in Miami, and Media Noche was designed to invoke those beachy, tropical aspects of a Cuba most of us haven’t seen. The owners aren’t Cuban either – Gringos! – but they’re well-steeped in the sleek, fast foodie shininess that seems to be popping up in new restaurants here – think Barzotto, Souvla – where white tiled surfaces abound, you Havana-slide it up to the counter to order, get a number, serve yourself water from a giant silver or glass canister, and toddle back to your table to await delivery of your food. (The remodel at Media Noche was done by the same people as the ones that did the make-over for Barzotto, as a matter of fact.)

None of this is a negative. Media Noche is quite lovely, with its soft-turquoise columns, myriad tile designs (there are several in the space), flashy Warholian banana wall-papered bathroom, de rigueur neon flamingo behind the counter, and mirrors-as-art hanging on the walls. The space is airy and light, and the music helps transport you to Calle Ocho.

And while it’s really not heavy-handed – you don’t feel like you’re in an It’s-a-Small-World version of Miami – it’s definitely not like any Cuban restaurant I grew up eating at in L.A, where old school Cuban eateries abound. But they’re not trying to be that. The food isn’t meant to be strictly authentic, but modern, locavore takes on Cuban favorites, and true to the Caribbean flavors. And more importantly, I was told by a couple different staff members that the owners really adore this cuisine.

On our first visit, we got the ham and cheese croquetas

Media Noche croquetas

Perfectly crunchy, with oozy cheese that forms a gooey bridge from your hand to your mouth, these babies didn’t even need the mustardy aioli they were served with. They tasted of a really good grilled ham and Swiss cheese sandwich, in crackly ball form.

We also shared the ensalada roja – a quinoa salad with beets, carrots, greens, and mint…

Media Noche roja salad[clear]

Earthy, yet light and healthy tasting, I certainly could have eaten this whole bowl but there was too much other deliciousness on the table.

The BF’s ropa vieja (“old clothes”), in particular, tasted like a bowlful of Cuba to me.

Media Noche ropa vieja bowl

Shredded, tender brisket in a tomato-y/pepper sauce over rice with black beans, and a killer pickled veg and coconut slaw. They use this slaw in a lot of other dishes, too, and that’s a really good thing. It’s not too pickle-y, not too sour, and the crunchy coconuttiness of it is just right with these flavors.

That ropa vieja was better than my Cubano, but I had to at least try the iconic sandwich…

Media Noche cubano

The Cubano is beloved Miami late night fare with club-goers, meant to soak up the indiscretions of the evening. Made with slices of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, grilled panini-style, Media Noche’s Cubano was pretty true to ones I’ve had in Miami, if just a tad dry.

For our second visit, we went fairly early (6 p.m.) on a Saturday night, but the place was so packed we left, as it didn’t look like we’d have a table by the time our food was ready. I’d read that that’s been a problem, but luckily, we live in the Mission, folks, and there’s always something else good to eat right around the corner. But, we made it back again on a Sunday evening.

Almost everything we had was excellent this evening. We ordered the picadillo empanadas to start…

media noche empanadas

Perfect – flaky pastry dough, and the filling…

Media Noche empanada

Right on the money. Picadillo is a beef stew with raisins and olives, in a slightly sweet tomato sauce. These were scrumptious.

For his main, the BF got the lechon asado bowl…

Media Noche lenchon

AY MAMI, que delicioso! Lechon is a beloved pork dish in several Latin American countries. Cuba’s version is made with mojo criollo – a citrusy garlic marinade. Media Noche’s lechon is one of the best I’ve ever tasted – succulent, flavorful, not even a hint of dryness. The whole bowl just works so well together – rich, garlicky meat, deliciously robust black beans, fragrant rice, and that tasty coconut slaw for freshness and crunch.   Superb.

For my main, I had La Celia – a fried chicken sandwich:

Media Noche Celia (chicken sandwich)

Made in the same mode as the Cubano and the Media Noche, it’s pressed, with a breaded, fried chicken patty (think Milanesa de pollo), that fantastic coconut slaw tucked into it, their green hot sauce, and avocado, which added a nice creaminess. Tasty, but the chicken patty was a little thin to me, and it couldn’t compare to the rest of the food. I virtuously brought half home for the BF to snack on later, as I snuck forkfuls of his lovely pork.

We actually grabbed the guayaba and cream cheese pastelito before we ordered our food – they had them sitting on the counter – and actually sampled it before dinner.

Media Noche pastel de guayaba

How could we resist?   A dream – super light & flaky, creamy and salty/sweet inside.

Media Noche pastel de guayaba

It reminded me of a childhood Cuban friend who would bring jelly and cream cheese sandwiches to elementary school. Such a simple treat, but so evocative. These were not available last time and aren’t on the menu. I hope they make regular appearances.

Media Noche has a limited wine list, but it suits the sensibility of the place: simple, bright, and clean. It consists of a French white, a bubbly, and a red, and four craft beers. But make sure you try their absolutely killer white sangria – apparently the recipe of the bar across the street, the Wildhawk Club (which took over the Lexington, sadly shuttered last year.)

I’m not a fan of Wildhawk as a bar, but this sangria is stellar, made with white wine, pineapple, Cocchi (a quinine-based aperitif wine), and lemon. It’s a perfect, summery balance between sweet/tart, herbal, and refreshing.

I’ve yet to try the signature Media Noche sandwich , but the only difference between that and the Cubano is the bread — the former subs in brioche. I also want to try their ceviche and the bean and cheese empanadas. I do hope they expand and change up their menu just a little, because I want to try every new thing they make. In the meantime, I can see us bringing home a couple of lechon bowls for dinner and being happy as puerquitos.

You can tell these people, non-Cubanos notwithstanding, really know this cuisine. And that’s good for all of us.

Media Noche

3465 19th St, San Francisco, CA 94110