Cañita, an oasis of bright green, pink, and turquoise on an otherwise scary and disgusting stretch of urban blight, is a promising addition to the world of Portland nightlife. Trouble is, there is no nightlife in Portland.

The night I ate there, the joint was hopping from about 5:00 to 7:30, and then started to empty out. The early-bird special may be fine at, say, Shari's, but not here across the street from Dante's, in the nightlife capital of the region.

This new Cuban place is so highly stylized, the mojitos so mojitoriffic, the salsa music so caliénte but the crowd? Put on some new clothes, people of P-town! You look so haggard and disheveled, it's hard to tell the difference between the customers and the nearby panhandlers. Not that I'm one to talk, of course. I haven't bought a new pair of slacks in three years.

Now that I've gotten that off of my hairy chest, let's talk about Cuban food. Cañita, and its sister restaurant, Pambiche, on NE Glisan, may be the only places in town to get a Cuban sandwich. It won't suffer from the lack of competition, though. Juicy, peppery roast pork, ham slices, and Swiss cheese are all crammed inside a fresh Cuban roll (just like in Miami) and pressed and toasted to perfection. The accompanying tostones (fried green plantains) were almost perfect; they could have been a little more tender.

An entrée of chilindrón de chivo, or braised goat, was sweet and pungent, and gamey, as would be expected of a goat dish. The roasted red peppers that lined the plate had absorbed a great bit of wine, which saved them from having a store-bought consistency. The meat itself was tender, the cut of goat more like an osso buco or an oxtail.

Better was the vaca frita, shredded beef and onions. I don't know how, but many of the fine shreds of meat (shredded beef is very typically Cuban) were crunchy and charred. It was this texture and a sweet/sour, almost sauerbraten-esque flavor profile that made this dish so irresistible. It was served with a side of black beans that went out of their way to be tasty and interesting.

You don't have to order a full meal here. The flexible menu makes it possible to eat tapas style, ordering a few small plates to go with a round (or two or five) of strong, reasonably priced cocktails. Choose between several contrasting fritters and croquettes--the sweetish calabaza was great, the salt cod less so. There's also a late night menu, so before you decide to hit the Jack-In-The-Box, be aware that inexpensive, tropical, homestyle chow is available right in the heart of downtown.

Speaking of location, let's talk about cajónes. It takes big ones to invest in this here property. Some of the mentally challenged, homeless individuals (or bums, as they used to be called) around here are pretty scary, and persistent enough in their panhandling endeavors to wander into the restaurant.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for the big-city location; it's edgy, and potentially fun. Who knows, maybe a few years from now, West Burnside will be the Belltown of Portland; then we'd have a rockin' nightlife. And way too many selfish, SUV-driving, cellphone-addicted pricks.

Long live our festering, scary skid row!

Savor the Flavor

Canita's Got Cajones by Paul Leschen