I’ve always liked Cuban food. I’ll never forget the recently disappeared Victor’s Café, haven for ex-pat Cubans and their fans and a beloved New York institution. I hung out there with my mother back in the ‘70’s. Aromas of garlic soup, roasted red peppers and spicy picadillo greeted entering patrons. The intoxicating strains of Afro-Cuban music blared from the juke box. These were some of my earliest and most pleasurable foreign restaurant memories. So it was my nose and ears that led me to an extra-ordinary stand in the middle of the Mercado de Medellín. This better-than-average traditional market located in the heart of Colonia Roma, is home to several stands that offer exotic looking South American products. But it’s rare to find a market stall offering anything other than prepared Mexican food. Several months ago this Cuban lunch counter, Banquetes Viant, opened up, the first of its kind in Mexico.
The affable Gina and her looming business partner Rafael hail from Havana but have lived in Mexico for 16 years. From 'the island' they imported their outgoing good humor, criollo cooking skills and penchant for peppering their speech with ‘mi amor’s. Gina started cooking for other ex-patriots out of her kitchen and recently decided to expand. The simple menu includes the dense yellow achiote infused Cuban tamales. Or those grilled Cuban tortas: if you’re lucky Gina will have some succulent ‘lechón asado’ - suckling pig - on hand to fill them. I usually order what on her menu is called simply ‘moros y cristianos’ (mixed black beans and rice). This ‘blue-plate special’ includes a dollop of chicken, pork or beef cooked in a fragrant garlicky sauce, crispy tostones (plantain chips), a small salad and the requisite eponymous rice and bean mixture. All for $50 pesos. Accompany your lunch with a Malta, a refreshing sparkling malt flavored drink, like a sweetened, non-alcoholic beer.
If you're in the mood to celebrate, buy a cone from Eugenio Palmeiro Ríos' ice cream stand at the corner - it's just about the best in Mexico, and, according to Palmeiro, also an Habanero, made according to his memories of that iconic Havana institution, Heladeria Coppelia.
Last time I lunched at Gina's lively spot a hunky young Cubano dressed in sports clothes, gold chains, muscles bulging, stopped by to enjoy the salsa blaring from the radio behind the counter, bumping and grinding, singing a few bars, before moving on to do his shopping. That’s what Cuba, its people and its food does to you.
Banquetes Viant Comida Cubana
In the middle of Mercado Medellín near the entrance to the ‘food court’
Tel. 5564 8440
Between Monterrey & Medellín, Campeche & Coahuila, Colonia Roma
Open daily for lunch
See my previous articles on Cuba, its cuisine and culture:
A Weekend in Havana
I'll See you in C.U.B.A.