Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fernandez the Bull (North), Naples, Florida

The Palomilla Steak Special is typically accompanied by black beans and rice
but can be served with fries upon request, as ordered by my husband today.

Every once in a while, I get homesick for Filipino food.  And while I can cook some of my own, sometimes I am just lacking in time or otherwise not in the mood to cook (or rather to clean up after I cook).  So, when the urge strikes me, I go to the next best thing - Latin food.  While some Philippine cuisine is Chinese influenced (as in the case of the egg-roll variant lumpia or the lo mein counterpart pancit), a good part of the cuisine is also Spanish influenced as a result of many years of Spanish rule over the Philippine islands.  I have a deep-rooted Spanish heritage so I tend to prefer the Spanish influenced dishes.  Outside of any metroplex, where Filipino restaurants are virtually non-existent, I keep on the lookout for Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurants that will suffice.

If you were to ask any Naples resident about the best Cuban food in town, chances are most would say that you could find such food at Fernandez the Bull.  "The Bull" (as I affectionately call it) has been a Naples tradition since the mid-1980s.  Luis and Raquel Fernandez, both Cuban immigrants, opened the restaurant in 1985 using Raquel's own recipes.  The Bull's menu is 100% authentic Cuban, which I love.  As a former resident of Miami, it's hard to be satisfied when it comes to Latin cuisine.  There is no shortage of Cuban inspired fare in the Miami-Dade area.  But past the county line, the search becomes much more difficult.  Lucky for us in Collier County, the Bull fits the bill.

When I came to Naples in the late 1990s, the restaurant operated out of a location on US 41.  Now, the Bull has two locations, one on the southern end of Airport Road, convenient to the Collier County Courthouse, and a "new" location on the northern end of Airport Road, in Piper's Crossing.  Admittedly, when the restaurant moved from US 41 to its south location, I was a bit sad.  My visits to the Bull have been less frequent given the added distance from both my office and home.  One might think that I would have been thrilled when the north location opened in February 2010.  But even after three years, I was skeptical of the new location.  I've seen a few local restaurants open second locations with little success.  So, admittedly, I was not sure if the newest incarnation would reflect the same authentic taste as its older sibling.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

A few weeks ago, after a long drive back to Naples from the east coast of Florida,  the family and I were longing for a good satisfying lunch.  We were pretty hungry after more than two hours in the car and no one was particularly forthcoming with suggestions.  That was when I remembered a recent Facebook post from a friend who swears by their ropa vieja.  Neither my husband and I had been to the Bull in a while and our hunger was getting the best of us.  I was ready to cast my skepticism aside for a helping of beans and rice.  So, to the north location we pointed our car.  This location is slightly bigger and, of course, newer than its sister to the south.    The decor is bright and inviting.  There is ample seating available and, I believe, some room for a few more tables.  The bar accommodates a generous number of diners as well.  The female-dominated staff (got to give props for the girl power) keep an immaculate dining room and provide prompt, friendly service.

The food?  Well, the food is excellent, just like the fare I always expect to have at the Bull.  And I come to the Bull just for the basics:  beans and rice.  Even at this north location, the Bull knows all too well how to take these simple things and make them taste so good.  The beans are so nicely seasoned, cooked with slivers of sweet onion.  And the rice is flavored with the most subtle hint of lime.  I can't help but keep coming back for more.  So simple, but so good.

But the Bull offers much more than just the basics; there are many protein-filled options for the meat lovers out there.

  • Flounder Fernandez.  Lightly dredged filets of flounder pan-fried with garlic and lemon and served with a cilantro garlic sauce.
  • Ropa vieja.  Shredded flank in a tomato sauce with onions and green peppers
  • Palomilla steak.  Flank steak marinated in garlic and lemon, dressed with grilled onions
  • Churrasco.  Seared steak topped with chimichurri sauce.  
  • Pollo a la Cubana.  Roasted and flash fried chicken quarters basted with mojo and garlic sauce
  • Lechon asado, tender roasted pork basted with garlic and lemon, just like the lechon of my youth.   

My absolute favorite?  Platinos maduros.  Sweet fried golden plantains.  Caramelized on the outside, crispy on the edges but firm and sweet on the inside.  Just like my mom makes them.  And that's why I order them every single time.

There is so much at the Bull to sample that it will take quite a few visits to get through the menu and enjoy the full Fernandez the Bull experience.  But that's okay, whatever it takes to keep you coming, right?

Fernandez The Bull Cafe on Urbanspoon

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