Week-end in Havana – Eating Cuban at the source

Note: The following article, which appears in an edited version in The Christian Science Monitor, is a deviation from my usual ruminations on eating in the former Aztec capital.

“You don’t go to Cuba to eat,” just about everybody had warned me. “There’s nothing to eat… NOTHING!” admonished my friend Ruth, who gives food tours of Mexico.
Well, it turns out it’s not true. I’d been to Cuba once, ten years ago, and my culinary memories are dim. As a food writer and restaurant critic, my recent return trip was an eye (and heart) opening experience.

Havana is the most beautiful city in Latin-America, essentially untouched since the revolution of 1959. Its architecture was spared the dreadful disregard that builders of the late 20th century had for their fellow human beings. None of the horrendous mirrored behemoths of Mexico City leer mockingly at a cowering populace. Architectural gems abound in a dozen different styles, including Spanish colonial, elegant neo-classic, art deco, and Vegas-style 1950’s streamline. Some buildings are being renovated by foreign (mainly Spanish) investors, others are left to their slow disintegration.
Havana’s sights and sounds are compelling. Classic cars are still around (some available as taxis), and hip-swaying music is heard everywhere. While superficially time seems to have stood still, this is just one aspect of this vibrant swinging metropolis. Cuba’s people live very much in the present—how else to endure the hardship daily life presents here?
I knew Cuban food from my early days in New York. My mother and I hung out at Victor’s Café on the upper West side, a haven for ex-pat Cubans and their fans. Aromas of garlic soup, roasted red peppers, spicy picadillo, flaky empanadas, fruity batidos and luscious baked flan were some of my earliest and most pleasurable foreign food memories.
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. Additions from a small Chinese community are found in certain dishes as well. Cooking is based on starchy tubers such as yucca, malanga, potato, and plantain, and the ubiquitous rice with black beans (when mixed together called moros y cristianos). Sauces are simple: a sofrito of onion garlic and tomato is the flavor base of many Cuban dishes. The spices most discernable are cumin and cinnamon, and condiments are achiote (annato), and bitter or Seville orange. Hot chilies are rarely used.
Workers in Cuba earn the equivalent of about US $15 per month in Cuban pesos. With these, they are given libretas (ration books), allowing them small amounts of basic food stuffs such as rice, oil, sugar and flour. Other relatively inexpensive foods can be bought with one’s remaining pesos: beans, fruits, vegetables, and meat (limited to pork or mutton of low quality). ‘Luxury’ items include chicken, fish, seafood, beef, alcohol, olive oil, and cheese. These must be paid for with the CUCs (convertible pesos), which in 2004 replaced the dollar as the currency used by all tourists or locals to buy luxuries. When I asked a Cuban acquaintance why there are still two currencies he shrugged, responding with resignation, “That’s what everybody asks—it’s just the way it is.” CUC’s are only earned by people in government jobs or in the informal economy – those serving foreigners, or with family members abroad. Even a bottle of spring water at the bus station was priced $1.20 (CUC) and was not for sale in Cuban pesos. In effect, most people can’t have these things. The majority never eat a whole chicken or a plate of shrimp or lobster.

Getting there is half the fun
Despite warnings about the old Soviet plane I would be herded onto, I chose Aviación de Cubana for its reasonable price, nonstop flight and good hours. My two hour flight from Mexico City was uneventful and comfortable. My hotel choice was a jackpot. ‘Ray’s Casa Particular’ is a vintage 1920’s apartment with three guest rooms and two shared baths near Habana Vieja. It is filled from floor to ceiling with kitchy-campy knick-knacks, is gay-friendly (although open to everyone) and more than comfortable. At US $25 including a good breakfast, it is a bargain. After unpacking my bag, I set out on my eating expedition.

My first stop was lunch at El Aljibe. This airy outdoor restaurant is located in the “nice” section of town called Miramar, a short ride from the center. I had the pollo asado Aljibe, a roasted bird served with a lightly thickened sour orange sauce. It was served with white rice and the best black beans in the world: thick and creamy while retaining their texture, fragrant with cumin, a touch of vinegar adding a tart undertone. Restaurants here are not as cheap as you might think, but this is one of Havana’s bargains, approximately $12 US for all you can eat.
In 1995 the government initiated a program to allow paladares (privately owned small restaurants) to operate. Paladar is Spanish for palate or taste. People opened their dining rooms to the public, offering simple home cooked food. Some have blossomed into full fledged professional operations, others retain their home-kitchen ambience. La Guarida calls itself a paladar but is really a restaurant, with printed menus, bow-tied waiters, and even a wine list. It’s located in an old, unmarked apartment building made famous by the 1994 film Fresa y Chocolate which was filmed there. The dining rooms of this converted apartment are reached by climbing three flights of run-down, poorly lit stairs. Old mosaic patterned floors, ornate antique wooden furniture, and peeling yellowed walls ooze ambience of an elegant past. The crowd is international. We were seated near a group of embarrassingly loud American business types – what were they doing here, I wondered, as there is no American business in Cuba. The food here was more adventurous and varied than anywhere else we ate. I started with eggplant ‘caviar’, the roasted vegetable well seasoned and attractively presented. I enjoyed my swordfish with seafood in a light cream sauce. It was fresh and well balanced although it arrived tepid. The pork medallions in mango sauce were done well; juicy and tangy/sweet. There’s a choice of Spanish and Chilean wines, reasonably priced at around $20 US. Service is not up to international standards in Cuba and here was no exception – you have to work hard to get what you order. I finished the meal well fed but curious--how is a private enterprise like this allowed to flourish in communist Cuba? “They have friends in high places”, a Cuban friend speculated.

At Paladar Gringo Viejo we enjoyed one of the best meals of all. It is located in the Vedado area, once home to Havana’s elite and now a laid back residential neighborhood dotted with apartments, hotels and restaurants. A simple space features a poster of the star of the eponymous movie, Gregory Peck. The garbanzo beans, flavored with ham, tomato, green peppers and onion was a hearty appetizer. Baked lamb shanks, braised with tomatoes, peppers and cumin were gigantic, tender and succulent. This is Criollo (Cuban home) cooking at its best.

Los Nardos is a well known centro venue, attracting políticos and well-heeled Cubans. Copious Criollo specialties are the order of the day here–we saw many people leaving with ‘doggy bags’ of leftovers. I was happy to encounter escabeche, a dish I recalled from New York. A firm white fish is sautéed then marinated in white vinegar, onions, pepper and oregano and served at room temperature—a perfect dish for tropical weather. The roast chicken was falling-off-the-bone tender. Cristianos y moros were satisfying as always, and plates were huge, as promised. A side of tamal Cubano turned out to be whipped up fresh corn, jazzed with a hint of garlic and tomato. It was pleasant, but baby food-like. Be sure to request a table in the front rooms as the rear is dreary.

The Asociacion Canaria de Cuba is an airy, old fashioned dining room on the second floor of another ramshackle, once-grand, building. Little birds flew in and out the windows as we dined, enhancing the carefree attitude of the place. The specialty here is fresh lobster tails, cooked several different ways. The best was al ajillo – tender chunks of lobster are lightly sautéed in butter and garlic. The ubiquitous side of beans and rice needs no description. Curiously, they also offer chop suey which turned out to be a plate of simple stir fried greens, a welcome respite from the high-carb living we had been enduring. Prices are low – a lobster lunch set me back no more than US $8.00

I could have hung out forever at the groovy Café Monserrate. It is a European style bar where Cubans and foreigners meet and a small combo plays until 11 PM. The mojitos are strong and not too sweet. It reminded me of an ultra-hip Madrid tapas bar with the brilliant addition of sophisticated tropical music. It doesn’t get much better.

Shopping and El Mercado

A trip to a large covered market in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood was a real eye-opener. I was immediately grabbed by a skinny but strong-willed lady who insisted on giving me a “tour” of the market. To label her aggressive would be polite. “Look at this!” “Photograph him--no not him, HIM!” she shrieked. I obediently did as I was commanded. There was quite a variety of produce in this market, where only Cuban pesos could be spent. For sale were fresh lettuces and leafy greens, green beans, peas, squash, tomatoes, several kinds of potatoes and tubers like malanga and yucca, carrots, pineapple, mango and papaya. Although the meat section was limited to some fatty pork and bacon and gristly looking mutton, there were long lines to buy. In a large bodega, rationed staples such as flour, sugar, rice, oil and vinegar were doled out. The market was bustling, the atmosphere jolly. Foods were of high quality and looked fresh, but the choice was narrow compared to a similar sized Mexican market. My “guide” had bought a bag of malanga tubers for her family’s dinner. Perhaps with the tip I gave her she would buy a little bacon to liven it up.

The “24 hour” store around the corner from my guest house seems to be the happening place at 1 AM, at least to hang out and chat. That’s because they have almost nothing to sell. All of about two dozen products laze about the roomy shelves. I was able to locate a dusty box of crackers to take up to my room, but I’m afraid there is not another one left for the next hungry traveler.

Street food in Cuba is limited to the famous peanut vendors and purveyors of small sandwiches containing a slice of mystery meat and a lettuce leaf. I saw signs and photos of mouth watering tortas de lechón (sandwiches of suckling pig), but the pig itself seemed not to exist. I remember the wonderful, colorful “batidos” at Victor’s in New York – thick, refreshing fruit milk shakes with exotic names like mamey and guayaba. I didn’t see any on offer in Cuba.

I didn’t find a gourmet’s paradise in Cuba. But I ate well and abundantly, and the whole experience made me feel happy and very alive. When I thought of what most people on the island were eating, I toned down my critical agenda and enjoyed my food, thanking God for the abundance in my life, and the freedom to move and think that I often take for granted. The spirit of ingenious creativity that prevails in Cuba is positively intoxicating—I’m already planning my next trip.

The author on the Malecón, La Habana, March, 2009

El Aljibe
Av. 7, between Calles 24 and 26, Playa
Tel. 204 1583/4
Open daily noon-midnight

La Guarida
Open Daily 7pm-midnight
Calle Concordia 418, Habana Centro
Tel. 7/862-4940

Los Nardos
Paseo del Prado 563 between Teniente Rey and Dragones, across from El Capitolio, Habana Vieja Tel. 863 2985
Open Daily 11:30am-11:30pm

Café Monserrate
Calles Monserrate and Obrapía, la Habana Vieja
Open around 12 to 11 PM, daily

Asociacion Canaria de Cuba
Avenida de las Misiones 258, between Neptuno and Animas, Habana vieja.
Tel. 862 5284
Open daily 12:00 - 20:30

Paladar Gringo Viejo
between Calles E & F, Calle 21 No 454, Vedado
Tel. 831 1946
Open daily 12:00 - 23:00 PM

Ray’s Casa Particular
Aguila No. 309, piso 2, (between Neptuno & Concordia) Centro Habana
Telephone 53-7-863-5107


Coox Hanal - Yucatecan Regional Cooking in the City

For Proust is was madeleines. For me, it’s sopa de lima. My initial trip to Mexico at age 14 was to Mérida, capital of the Yucatan. It was a thrill I’ll never forget. The first thing I ate was a bowl of sopa de lima . The memory of that soup, with its perfumy aroma of limas (a non- acidic citrus native to the area) and crispy tortilla strips, still fills me with a sense of wonder and discovery. Since then I’ve gone on to experience the wide range of flavors that Yucatecan cuisine has to offer. The cooking of the peninsula, with its spicy, tart, and fruity flavors, is among the most distinctive and exciting in Mexico. Fortunately, Yucatecan food is readily available here in the capital, so I don’t need to travel 1000 miles to wax nostalgic.
The Yucatan peninsula is geographically isolated from the rest of the country, so its culture, heavily influenced by Mayan civilization, is unique. Spanish, Caribbean and even Lebanese (who controlled the hemp industry in the 19th century) immigrants have made cultural and gastronomic contributions. The food is characterized by very hot sauces (typical of very hot places) and local ingredients like pumpkin seed powder, red onion, sour orange, sweet pepper, lime, a marinating paste known as "achiote", capsicum pepper (xcat ik), habanero pepper, and coriander, as well as the aforementioned lima . Turkey, wild boar, venison and cazón (a small shark) traditionally provide the protein.
I’ve tried just about every venue for Yucatecan food in el D.F. over the years, and none has matched the quality of Coox Hanal (pronounced “coosh anAHL”). This popular restaurant was founded by ex-boxer Raúl Salazar from Mérida, and it offers Yucatecan fare just as it's done in Don Raúl's hometown. Located over a billiard parlor in a non-descript building in the centro, this restaurant is popular with people who work in the neighborhood and with families--there’s even a small rooftop playground for the kids. It’s been around since 1953, so you know they’re doing something right.
Of course, I always start with the fragrant sopa de lima, hearty and well-balanced. Then I move in for the hard stuff. The peninsula’s most famous dish is cochinita pibil. Shredded pork is marinated in a paste of citrus and achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted until it’s falling-apart tender. The meat is eaten as tacos with pickled red onions and fiery habanero salsa. Alternatively, it is piled on a thick tortilla over a slather of black bean paste, and called a ‘panucho’. Meaty, spicy, the flavors distinct--the cochinita pibil at Coox Hanal hits all the marks. But don’t expect to stay on your diet –a greasy puddle is part of the package.
Papadzules are tortillas filled with chopped eggs and covered with a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds. The pale green sauce is nutty and creamy, but contains no dairy – the seeds do all the work, augmented by onion, garlic and epazote ( a medicinal tasting herb used only in Mexico). This earthy and satisfying dish is a good choice for vegetarians.
Pan de cazón (tortillas layered with fish, black beans and mildly spicy tomato sauce) is a another good alternative to the heavily carnivorous options. (Beware the chile perched on top—it’s for decoration or dare-devils only).
Poc chuc, grilled pork marinated in sour orange juice, is a typical regional dish. Here it’s tender and mild, good for those for whom the other stronger flavors are too much.
Chamorro, a big hunk of roasted, marinated meat pork shank that would appeal to Fred Flintstone – is very popular, but I find it rather messy to eat and less subtle tasting than the cochinita.
Also on the recently expanded menu are “recados”, thin, mole-like sauces served over meat. A smoky flavor dominates, but they are mild, a little thin. This is something I put in the ‘acquired taste’ category.
Ice cold horchata or a León or Montejo beer, direct from the Yucatán, are beverages of choice.
Prices are reasonable – a big lunch won’t set you back more than $100 pesos per person.
Do be careful of those salsas! They’re pretty to look at, but hotter than Dante could have imagined!

Coox Hanal
Isabel la Católica 83, near Mesones, upstairs, Centro
Open daily 10:30am-6pm
Tel. 5709-3613

This article was originally published in The News Mexico City


The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea : Contramar and El Caguamo

Mexico City is an aquatic paradise for a seafood lover like me.. How can our land-locked capital, provide this cornucopia of creatures that swim? The Mercado de Vigas, our astonishingly huge central fish market, is stocked by truckers who make the 8-hour trek daily from either coast. The gaps are filled by fresh trout and other odd aquatic creatures such as the crayfish-like acamayas from nearby mountain streams. The myriad ways Mexican cooks work magic with this oceanic bounty is nothing short of amazing. Paella-like rice dishes, spicy soups and stews, lemony cocktails, quesadillas, ceviches are but a few of the mouthwatering treats to be found.

One of my favorite places to eat seafood is the by no means undiscovered Contramar, a
chic ‘be-there-or-be-square’ hangout in Colonia Roma. They happen to serve some of the best pescados y mariscos (fish and seafood) in town .
Young owners Gabriela Cámara and Pablo Bueno opened their hangar-size space, decorated like a beach palapa, in 1998 with a simple vision: “to serve good food in a comfortable environment”. The menu has evolved over the years, and, surprisingly, while it has become a fashionable, some might say trendy, venue, the quality of the food has improved. Simple west-coast fare with an occasional European or Asian touch is offered: tostadas, ceviches, tacos, sashimis etc. Start with an order of sashimi de atún, a signature dish, the fresh, thinly sliced tuna served on a crispy tostada or a coctél de callo de hacha (scallops). The classic Spanish pulpos a la Gallega, tender morsels of octopus sautéed with garlic, olive oil and paprika is done to buttery perfection.
Also highly recommended are the soft shell crabs (when in season), sautéed in garlic and butter. Unusual tacos de charal, with tiny dried fish prepared a la mexicana as a rich taco filling, make a great accompaniment to a tequila or beer (it’s one is one of Gabriela’s favorites). But I always go for the spectacular pescado a la talla. A whole fish, whatever is freshest at the market, is splayed flat and grilled with 2 salsas–half red, half green. The recipe is Gabriela’s variation on a Guerrero classic. It is beautiful to look at, and the light, smoky salsas compliment but do not overwhelm the warm juicy fish. You order by the number of diners, and the appropriately sized fish will be served (hence the title “a la talla”: to size).
A founding member of the local Slow Food group, the vivacious Gabriela Cámara puts her money where her mouth is: Contramar quietly serves tortillas handmade from heirloom corn grown in nearby Xochimilco, as well as local, organically grown vegetables. Recognized by the Mexican government for its achievements, the restaurant was selected to represent the nation’s cuisine at Expo Zaragoza in Spain last year.

But there are days when upscale “ambiente cool” just isn’t what I’m in the mood for. So I head to the centro to the humble street stall El Caguamo which I consider one of the city’s best
places for seafood (caguamo is slang for a liter-size beer bottle). Half of Mexico City seems to agree with me, as it’s always packed (even Ms. Cámara can occasionally be seen, hiding behind a pair of dark glasses a la Lana Turner, munching on a tostada here.)
While common wisdom may tell you not to eat fish on the street, the offerings are exquisitely fresh, set on ice and behind glass--and the turnaround is swift. I have interviewed many devoted customers who swear they’ve never regretted eating here; and neither have I.
The ceviches of jaiba, pescado, calamar or pulpo, (crab, fish, squid or octopus), made with chopped tomato, chili, onion and cilantro, augmented with lime juice and olive oil, are out of this world – just the right proportion of sour/herb aroma. They can be eaten as a coctél in a glass or on a tostada. Be sure to order a caldo de camarón as an accompaniment. This rich, deep ruby-red broth is flavored with both dried and fresh shrimp and chilies; a chico, served in a cup, usually does it for me.
Filetes, boned fish filets battered and deep fried, should be hot. Make sure to order one if you see them fresh out of the oil. Also good are the empanadas de camarón, made from freshly rolled dough. I like to request mine “sin mayonesa” as otherwise they will slather mayo on – my only complaint here. This is a must-stop for aficionados of the real thing…
Don’t let the lack of a local waterfront scare you – Mexico City will not fail to satisfy “the seafood lover in you”.

Calle Durango 200, near Plaza Cibeles, Colonia Roma
Tel. 5514-3169
Open Monday-Saturday 1 - 6:30, Sunday 1:30-6:30Reservations, only accepted before 2, are a must – it is always packed.

El Caguamo
Calle Ayuntamiento, near López, Centro
Open Monday - Saturday, approximately 11AM - 6 PM

This article has previously been published in The News; photos are by Rodrigo Oropeza



If you’re looking for the best Mexican food in Mexico City you’ll have to go back to school.
In the middle of the campus of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México) sits the unassuming but excellent Restaurante Azul y Oro. Named after the eponymous college colors, it’s the baby of chef and culinary investigator Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Muñoz deserves “national living treasure” status for his tireless work conserving and documenting our country’s rich culinary traditions. He is author of the superb Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana, an invaluable resource, as well as other cookbooks.
His restaurant is housed in a sunny second floor space across from the Sala Nezhualcoyatl music hall and the fabulous new University Museum of Contemporary Art, and is popular with students and university staff alike. An umbrella-covered patio area offers an appealing outdoor dining option.
The menu offers Mexican standards as well as rarely seen specialties. Start with a tamalito de acelgas (a tamal stuffed with swiss chard and fresh cheese), or the soothing and savory crema de cilantro. Standard ‘international’ salads are available for those who want something light – the salad with pear and blue cheese is generous and perfectly dressed. There’s even a large plate of cooked vegetables topped with blue cheese sauce for vegetarians.
But it’s the ‘Especialidades’ – house specialties – that I go for. My favorite is the ravioles crujientes rellenos de pato, a fusion dish of deep-fried wontons filled with duck then bathed in a deep, dark chocolaty Oaxacan mole.
An unusual vegetarian option is the enchiladas de jamaica orgánica, fragrant tortillas filled with tart, fruity hibiscus flowers and augmented by a mildly picante tomato/chipotle sauce.
Desserts are worth the calories. On my ‘don’t miss’ list is the hot chocolate – made either with milk or water, the chocolate itself comes from Oaxaca and is a special blend containing 30% almonds.

On a recent balmy afternoon, I sat down with chef Muñoz during a quiet moment before comida time to investigate the investigator. He’s quiet but passionate, and very determined when it comes to the subject of Mexican cuisine.
Nicholas Gilman: What was your concept for this restaurant?
Ricardo Muñoz: I wanted to do something different – Azul y Oro is the only place of its kind in Mexico serving carefully researched and authentic traditional dishes made with very high quality ingredients. We didn’t need another expensive Polanco-type place. I wanted it to be accessible, unpretentious, but of high quality.
NG: How do you characterize “traditional” dishes”
RM: Foods prepared and presented with respect for their origins. For example, we do a duck with black mole from a carefully researched Oaxacan recipe – other than the fancy presentation, the flavors are those of Oaxaca. In fact, we import all necessary ingredients from the source. We use artisanal and organic products whenever possible. Taste a corner of this: [he produces a perfumy loaf of achiote, a ground red spice often used in Yucatecan cooking]
NG: Yes, I see what you mean! [it is amber colored, mild and aromatic, not neon red and acrid like the packaged variety]
RM: We also utilize organic produce, such as corn for tortillas, milk, coffee, salad greens and vegetables.
NG: Talk a little bit about your menu
RM: We have a base menu which offers a range of standard dishes from different regions of Mexico and, periodically offer “festival” menus featuring regional specialties. Past festivals have focused on Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan.
NG: Will you be repeating these festivals?
RM: Yes – our customers demand it. We’re about to present a new one, to celebrate mango season [which has already started]. I call it “mmm….Mango!” This special menu will offer nine dishes, from appetizers to desserts, all featuring mango. [I was privileged to a preview: a succulent, tender beef filet, accompanied by pico de gallo of mango – a perfectly balanced spicy/sweet/salty concoction. It turns out the secret ingredient that ties it all together is Thai fish sauce!]
NG: What is your favorite dish, the one you recommend most?
RM: Pescado Tikin-Xic – without a doubt.
NG: Can you describe it?
RM: It comes from a town called Chuburna in the Yucatan. Fish filets are marinated in achiote, grilled and served stacked over sautéed plátano, frijoles, and avocado. It’s beautifully presented, our most popular dish. [I agree, having enjoyed it several times]
NG: Tell me about your books.
RM: I’ve done five; the latest [and the only one available at the moment] is called Salsas Mexicanas.
NG: Your Diccionario Enciclopédico de Gastronomía Mexicana is an extraordinary work. How did it come about?
RM: I decided to do it because I thought it needed to be done. It began as a glossary, but evolved into a more extensive work. It took over twelve years to produce, and it’s the only one of its kind. I did all the research myself.
NG: What are your plans for the future?
RM: We’re coming out with a huge new cookbook on classic Mexican cooking…
NG: Anything in English?
RM: Not yet – hopefully in the future.
NG: Any new restaurants?
RM: Not this year, but I’m sure we will eventually open a branch somewhere else in the city.

Azul y Oro
Centro Cultural Universitario, (near Sala Nezahualcóyotl), Ciudad Universitaria
Branch in the Torre de Ingeniería (also on the UNAM campus)
Tel: 5622-7135
Open Monday-Tuesday, 10AM-6PM, Wednesday-Thursday, until 8PM, Saturday until 9PM and Sunday 9AM-7PM
Reservations are not accepted, credit cards are
This article was published in The News Mexico City; photos are by Rodrigo Oropeza