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FLYING HIGH WITH LOVE: Hungry Sparrow brings colorful Cuban to Castle Street

Hungry Sparrow takes the (corn) cake with all of its hand-helds and dishes.

Stop looking for Wilmington’s best Cuban sandwich. I’ve found it. It lives on Castle Street inside a charming, bricked, teal-and-white café. Here, plantains are so crispy they almost made me cry, and the garlic mayo was silky enough to use as hair conditioner.

CRUSTY DELICIOUSNESS: Rosa’s fave Cubano now comes from Hungry Sparrow, the unassuming Cuban restaurant on Castle St. Photos by Tom Dorgan

CRUSTY DELICIOUSNESS: Rosa’s fave Cubano now comes from Hungry Sparrow, the unassuming Cuban restaurant on Castle St. Photos by Tom Dorgan

On my very first visit to Hungry Sparrow, I went with a group of four around 7 p.m. on a weekend evening. I couldn’t keep my mind off of the onion rings after I spotted them on the menu. They were so addicting, they stayed on my mind for weeks to come. I also sampled red beans and rice—which were flooded with earthy flavors far more impressive than I could have imagined.

As we finished our meal, a staff member came over with two mysterious to-go boxes. We were the last customers of the evening and, instead of having the papa rellenos go to waste, we were given every last one. We were also treated to a slice of tres leches cake—one of the most sublime desserts I’ve had to date.

And I don’t even have a sweet tooth.

So it only made sense for my husband and I to pop in for lunch on a gorgeous Wilmington afternoon last week in preparation of this review. Although Hungry Sparrow offers counter-style service, food and drinks are brought right to the table. The dining area is clean and modest with thoughtful, colorful décor. I had yet to experience the papa rellenos fried-to-order, so they were at the top of my list. The oversized golden croquette came sizzling hot and we broke right into it with our forks. Steam floated off of the creamy mashed potatoes and I settled into my stretchy pants. Inside the round: a delicate layer of taters encased a juicy mixture of meat. The beef and pork hash had a slightly pink-ish color, but I assume it was just spice mixture.

I was on the verge of ordering the chorizo and cheese empanada, but we had so much meat in our future, my husband suggested the spinach and cheese instead. The savory pocket ended up being my absolute favorite part of the meal. (Apparently, men can be right about things?) The dough was crunchy on the outside and surprisingly flaky as I peeled it apart to reveal the oniony spinach mixture. The dreamy pie was like a Latin spanakopita and I’m not mad at all about it. More, please!

The corn arepas with fresh mozzarella were up next. It reminded me of a Cuban version of a grilled cheese where the outer layers were sweet corn pancakes instead of bread. I would have liked a bit more texture on the exterior (maybe griddled on a flattop), but the sweetness of the cakes made the dish hard to stop eating.

There are a handful of restaurants, food trucks, and what not in Wilmington that serve Cuban sandwiches. For me, Hungry Sparrow’s takes the (corn) cake.  An uber authentic Cubano is, of course, prepared on a Cuban loaf. Hungry Sparrow uses something resembling a hoagie roll, but flattens and crisps it  beautifully. Stuffed inside are succulent shreds of pork, thin, salty ham, sharp yellow mustard, nutty Swiss cheese, and tangy pickles. Why is this sandwich perfect? Let’s break it down…

First, the gloriously grilled bread is crusty without being so brittle it hurts the roof of the mouth. There’s just enough meat to be satisfying, but not so much it slips out the ends. The pickle rounds are thinly sliced and expertly placed. Also, the sandwich is enormous (definitely acceptable for splitsies) and just under $10. Need I say more?

I couldn’t imagine enjoying anything more than the Cuban, but I wanted to give another handheld a test run so I sampled the Palomilla chicken sandwich. Every bite was better than the last. The thinly-sliced grilled chicken (marinated in a zippy blend of fresh garlic, lime juice, and spices) exploded with flavor. For the toppings, it was a simple garnish trio of shredded lettuce, tomato and sliced red onions, with a slathering of garlic mayo.

Can we take a moment of silence? Better yet, can we give a standing O, to the garlic mayo? We’ve all tasted pretty average garlic-flavored mayonnaise, but Hungry Sparrow’s zesty condiment is more of a sharp, loose aioli. It should be spread onto every part of your meal. Or body. Your choice.

I adored drenching my Palomilla sandwich in even more of it, but the sauce paired best with the fried plantains. Hungry Sparrow offers an option of either sweet or green, so I went savory all the way. The smashed and fried rounds were rustic and salty and—had I not been so full of sandwiches and empanadas—I  could have eaten at least a dozen.

Unfortunately, none of the “plate” options from the menu were available that day, but I still left full and content as could be. Daily specials like the pernil (garlic and citrus-marinated slow roasted pork with pickled onions) and the Saturday dinner oxtail stew are regular favorites, so I’m told. Regardless, everything on Hungry Sparrow’s menu is handmade and sourced with as many local ingredients as possible. This gem is fresh, authentic, and smack dab in the middle of the revitalized antique and arts district on Castle Street.

What more could you ask for? Alarmingly good spinach and cheese empanadas, maybe. Oh, wait! They have those, too.

Hungry Sparrow
701 Castle St.
(910) 782-2950
Closed Sun. and Mon.
Tues.-Sat.,: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.

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