Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, plays softly from the speaker above our table. The afternoon sun, filtered through a canvas screen, casts a muted glow. Grapevines climb the side of the building and cascade through the open wood beams of the arbor. A gentle breeze rustles the dangling leaves. Directly past the white stucco patio wall, the tops of the trees lining Washington Street melt into the thick green foliage of the Mayacamas in the distance.
A Caribbean vacation might not be in your budget this year, but a trip to Protea in Yountville can s till deliver on the feel good vibes of a warm day in Havana.
Owner and Chef, Anita Cartagena, serves Caribbean-inspired global cuisine at this fast-casual spot located on a street better known for Michelin stars and multi-course fine dining. Which is part of the brilliance of Protea and the dishes coming out of the open kitchen – Protea’s island ambiance and unmatched flavors deliver in entirely unexpected ways.
I dined at Protea on a weekday afternoon during peak lunch hours. A vacationing family, as well as a few individuals on their lunch breaks, waited in line ahead of me. The staff operating the counter were friendly, well-informed on the menu that changes daily, and efficient. I ordered and made my way to the rooftop patio with a Cuban postcard to mark my table in less than five minutes.
As usual, I brought a dining pal along to try as many menu items as possible. Much of the menu changes daily, but some of the diner favorites like the empanadas ($12 for 2), Cuban Media Noche sliders ($16), Philly cheesesteak ($16), and cheeseburger ($17) are mainstays. We decided to order the empanadas, Cuban Media Noche sliders, as well as the Bistec Encebollado ($18). We wanted to dive into as much Caribbean and Latin American cuisine as possible.
On the day of our visit, Protea offered both mushroom and beef empanadas. We ordered one of each and could not force ourselves to choose a favorite. The fried dough made for a crispy, salty, flaky crust just thick enough to encase the filling, but not so thick as to upset the balance. The mushroom empanada oozed with provolone cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and specks of thyme. The beef empanada, a traditional Argentinian combination of spicy ground beef and sweet golden raisins, delivered a fiery burst of heat.
I have been known to Uber to Miami for medianoche sandwiches while on layovers traveling to and from South America. It would be an understatement to say I was excited to discover Cuban Media Noche sliders waiting to be devoured in Yountville. Though the traditional medianoche is served pressed, these sliders pile Niman Ranch roasted pork, prosciutto, and pickles precariously atop Hawaiian rolls kissed by the grill. American cheese melts over the meat and spicy aioli cuts through the fat of the meat and cheese and the sweetness of the bun.
The Bistec Encebollado features thinly sliced, perfectly cooked steak with grilled onions served over richly seasoned beans and fluffy white rice with fried plantains. We’re spoiled living in Napa Valley with so many world-renowned restaurants available for our Wednesday afternoon lunch. Our expectations are high. This dish composed of meat, rice, beans, and onions, could easily have been bland and boring. What an unexpected treat to find a tremendous depth of flavor in such a simple combination.
I have to confess. One visit was not enough. I snuck back a second time when Protea announced through social media they were serving Lomo Saltado ($18), a dish I fell in love with while living in Peru.
My second visit to Protea was on a Sunday afternoon. The tables in front of the restaurant were full, a few seats remained available inside, and just one table was vacant on the rooftop. The kitchen fired dishes while the serving staff buzzed around the restaurant, ensuring every diner was satisfied with their meal. My partner came along this time, and we went for the carnitas tacos (3 for $16) in addition to the Lomo Saltado.
Every bite of the Lomo Saltado was exactly as I remembered tasting it for the first time in Cuzco fifteen years ago. Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-Chinese dish, is a stir-fry of thinly sliced steak, spicy peppers, tomatoes, and onions served over French fries and white rice. Protea’s dish is a beautiful balance of savory, salty, spicy and just a hint of sweet with cherry tomatoes broken down over high heat. The bed of French fries and rice soak up every morsel of flavor.
The carnitas tacos were also superb. It was clear the meat had slow-cooked until it reached that melt-in-your-mouth shredded, fall apart state of deliciousness. Tangy, spicy tomatillo salsa, shredded Napa cabbage, and pickled red onions topped the pork. Each ingredient cut through the rich fattiness of the meat and left us fighting over the third taco.
6488 Washington Street, Yountville | 11AM TO 8PM, MONDAY - FRIDAY