On January 1, 1959, Mariano Guas, 13 years old, was at home in Havana when he learned that Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista, had fled the country. “It was a gloomy scene. I was scared,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect or what it meant. But it didn’t take long to realize my life was about to change.” Young Mari started boarding school in Mississippi a few months later, and he never lived in Havana again.
Mariano is now 65 years old, and after years of talking about it, he and his son David have returned to Cuba. David grew up in New Orleans and is an expert on the sweets and savory dishes of his hometown, which he re-creates at Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia. Though he made his reputation cooking Creole and Cajun dishes, David’s childhood was filled with traditional Cuban food. “Instead of eating red beans and rice, like everyone else in Louisiana, we had black beans,” he says. “It was important for my father to represent Cuba to us.” Now the father and son have come to Cuba to reconnect with the country through the dishes of their memories.
Just a few years ago, visiting Cuba to eat would have been unthinkable. After Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 and the ensuing US embargo, the country’s tourism industry collapsed. But over the past 10 years, the government has revived tourism, finding inventive ways to maintain state control but also attract foreign investments and promote local entrepreneurs. The Havana of today draws crowds of Canadian and European tourists, but few Americans; only those on educational trips, conducting research, working as journalists or visiting family are granted special visas.
Eating your way around Cuba, however, isn’t like eating your way around France or Italy. As Mariano and David quickly discovered, Havana restaurants are wildly different from those in other cities. The larger ones are usually state-owned establishments that cater only to tourists and the upper-upper class. The other types of restaurants are small, family-run spots called paladares, which are usually inside someone’s home. (Paladar is Spanish for palate, though the name was inspired, oddly, by a Brazilian soap opera.) This type of family restaurant has existed for a long time in Cuba; it was legalized in the ’90s, but the number of seats, non-family employees and types of food are still regulated by the government.
Mariano started the trip with a checklist of dishes he wanted to find again, as if to reboot his childhood memories: Guava paste and butter sandwiches, served after school by the family’s maid; the gooey guava-filled pastries called pastelitos; roast chicken with sour orange and garlic from a thatched-roof restaurant on the outskirts of the city; the fresh pineapple slices he used to dip in the ocean before eating.
The first stop on this food-nostalgia tour was a small home paladar in the central Vedado area called Los Amigos. Cubans stood in line waiting to get into a small space with a dozen tables. The food was classic: roast chicken, rice and beans, fried yucca root and tostones, starchy plantains double-fried into crisp, round disks. David looked at the menu and said, “Ah, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
These were the dishes of his childhood, “peasant food, comfort food, what I want to eat at the end of the day,” he said. He was excited about picadillo: ground beef cooked with onions, olives and raisins, served over rice. “Chefs always think about mixing savory and sweet, and this has that balance down,” David says. “I think it’s a perfect dish.” There was a moment of triumph when he found tomatoes in it. For years, he’d been arguing with his mother: She said picadillo should not have tomatoes; David always made it with. He photographed it to show her. “The sweetness comes from the tomatoes and raisins cooking down for a long time,” he said.
But what impressed David most was the tostones. “These are something Cubans always do right. Never undercooked or overcooked,” he said. “And always perfectly salted.” At Los Amigos, there were side dishes of moros and cristianos (“Moors and Christians”)—black beans and rice, another dish of his childhood. “Every time I eat this,” David said, “I start humming to myself.” The dish represents the mingling of Muslims (black beans) and Christians (rice) in Medieval Spain; they are cooked together, so the rice takes on an inky, purplish color and the earthy flavor of the beans.
Cubans often joke that returning exiles expect to find Havana frozen in time, with men in white linen suits singing “Guantanamera.” On their first night, Mariano and David went to a bar in the historic old section—and the band played “Guantanamera.” They drank daiquiris, but not the blended kind. These were strong, tart drinks with just three ingredients: lime, sugar and rum. Later that night, they stopped in at La Bodeguita del Medio, a 70-year-old bar and restaurant that is, as Hemingway once pointed out, one of the best places in Havana for a mojito. Playing a handmade Cuban guitar called a tres, a singer played Mariano’s favorite song, a Eusebio Delfín bolero from the ’20s, “¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” (“And you, what have you done?”).
Havana’s frozen-in-time feeling was everywhere. Visiting his former neighborhood, Miramar, Mariano found his family’s house still standing, his old neighbor living in the same apartment upstairs. He traveled around the city in the cars of his childhood: two-tone 1950s Buicks, Chevys and Oldsmobiles, which never broke down, though the suspension sagged and the gurgle of the ancient engines earned them the nickname cafeteras, “coffeemakers.”
At a state-owned restaurant called El Aljibe, Mariano had the gustatory version of a time warp when he saw the house specialty—roast chicken with garlic-and-sour-orange sauce. As a child, his family used to drive outside the city just to visit Rancho Luna restaurant, famous for its crisp-skinned birds. (The chicken was so memorable that Mariano’s mother continued to make it after the family moved to New Orleans.) The García family that owned Rancho Luna, which closed in 1961, opened El Aljibe in the well-off Miramar neighborhood, bringing the same thatched roof, leather chairs and chicken recipe into an urban environment. Mariano asked when the new restaurant had opened, and the waitress said August 13, 1993. She then pointed toward the heavens reverentially and, in a hushed voice, added, “the birthday of Fidel.”
When the chicken arrived, Mariano bit into it and said, “This is it.” David nodded in agreement, saying that the tangy sauce would be tough to re-create at home without sour oranges, which are hard to find in the US. However, basting the chicken with a mix of its own juices, pineapple and lime juice would approximate the flavors of the original. Mariano tried to order the dessert his parents always got him and his younger brother, the doncellita—chocolate syrup and evaporated milk with a cherry on top—but the waitress said they didn’t make it anymore.
Mariano ordered a round of other desserts. David recognized the French toast–like torrejas, similar to the New Orleans dessert pain perdu. The natillas, a simple cream-colored custard sprinkled with cinnamon, was a perfect delivery system for eggs, milk and vanilla. David noticed that the custard was overcooked and pitted with bubbles. All his Cuban relatives in the US overcooked their flans. “I used to say to my grandmother, ‘Why do you overcook the flan?’ ” David recalled. “She would say that it was supposed to be like that.”
There are more ambitious restaurants in Cuba now, though some of them try too hard. One Miramar paladar, La Cocina de Lilliam, garnishes a fish dish with a water glass that has a live goldfish swimming in it, leaving the diner with both a moral and gastronomic conundrum.
But some of these spots are wonderful. Carlos Cristóbal Márquez, 50, a former personal chef to a Spanish businessman, opened Paladar San Cristóbal on the ground floor of his family home in downtown Havana. The house is one of those grand, crumbling buildings with ornate tile floors, potted palms, crystal chandeliers, high ceilings and tangled makeshift wiring slung over ornate rococo masonry. The rooms have slid from elegant to kitschy, with old photos of everyone from Carmen Miranda to Fidel playing baseball. Carlos cooks traditional Cuban dishes like congrí, pork in garlic and onions, and fried malanga root. David was most impressed with a dish called langosta enchilada, spiny lobster cooked with soft sautéed onions, peppers and celery. Because of the name, David thought the dish would be spicy, but it was a stew-like sauté served over long-grain rice, incredibly similar to the shrimp Creole David cooks at his restaurant. “The parallels to New Orleans were crazy,” David said. “In Louisiana, we talk about the ‘holy trinity’—onion, celery and pepper. If you have that in your refrigerator, you can make anything. This starts the same way, and it’s just like the shrimp Creole I make at home, but not spicy.”
“Cuban food is mild,” Carlos said. “It is based on onions and garlic.”
David went into the kitchen to see how Carlos made the dish. “It was not a state-of-the-art kitchen,” he recalled. “It was just a home kitchen, with cheaply made products, a bunch of crock pots and a steamer. There wasn’t even a commercial range. It was incredible that he could even run a restaurant.”
David chopped the holy trinity for the lobster enchilada while Carlos talked about Cuban food and demonstrated his recipes. He added some white wine to the lobster.
“Chardonnay?” David asked.
Carlos shrugged. “Dry.”
David showed Carlos how he makes his shrimp Creole, essentially the same dish, but with a strong hit of cayenne pepper. Later, David marveled at the way the Spanish and African influences crossed the Atlantic and then both took root in these two cities, which are separated by the Gulf of Mexico. “Even his restaurant, with stucco walls and a big open courtyard, reminded me of New Orleans,” David said. “I felt immediately comfortable.”
The next day, Mariano and David hired a driver and packed into his 1955 Oldsmobile convertible, the same car Mariano’s father once owned. They were in search of the Guas’s country place, a modest, tile-roofed wooden house about an hour outside the city. Mariano knocked on the door of a house and found the granddaughter of a man who used to cook for his family. She let him onto the property. It was a hot day, and Mariano, a small, fit man, took off his shirt and leapt along a muddy, thorny, narrow trail as though following a call. David followed, shouting out to him, and found Mariano standing in the tall weeds of a steep slope. He looked 13 again and stricken by a spell. He whispered, “This is it.”
The house was gone, but he looked down the slope, remembering how they used to slide down on palm fronds to the beach below, where he dipped his pineapple in the water. A security guard from a military officers’ club next door told him that down by the water, there is a plaque. Fidel had been there in 1960.
Mariano knew that. When he visited from Mississippi in the summer of 1960, he didn’t know it would be his last summer in Cuba. The mood in Havana was too tense, so his family spent most weekends out by the beach. Mariano had broken his arm, and because of the cast, he could not go swimming with the rest of the family. He spent his time wandering along the shoreline. One day, a launch pulled up and a bearded giant of a man came ashore: Fidel Castro. Though there was no one else there, he walked right past Mariano without saying anything. That fall Mariano went back to school, never to return—until now.
Mark Kurlansky’s latest book is Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.
Cuban Food Lexicon
These hand pies have their root in the region of Galicia, Spain, where they are typically baked as large savory pies and then cut into smaller portions. They’re common in Latin America, where they are made to be portable. In Cuba, empanadas are traditionally deep-fried and filled with beef or chicken.
A method of preserving fish by first cooking it, then pickling it in a vinegar marinade. The preparation can be traced back to an ancient Middle Eastern dish of meat in a sweet-sour sauce called sikbaj.
A staple of Western Africa, this starchy side is usually made from cassava or yams. In Cuba, the dish is made with mashed green plantains and bits of pork.
A warm pressed sandwich that uses the same fillings as its more famous cousin, the Cuban, but featuring a softer, challah-like egg bread instead of a crusty loaf.
A beef-tomato stew cooked until the beef resembles rag-like shreds of cloth, which inspired the dish’s name of “old clothes.” It is said to have come from the Canary Islands and spread on Spanish Colonial ships throughout the Caribbean.