No need to travel far for authentic Cuban fare.
March 07, 2016
Everybody is talking about Cuba lately. The news media hastened to show us video of the American flag raised over our long-closed Embassy for the first time in over a half century and the TV show Secretary of State wasted no time in plugging that event into a storyline. Veteran travelers can't wait to be among the first to experience it. Car buffs are itching to see streets filled exclusively with be-bob era automobiles. The airlines practically have planes lined up on the runways waiting to start service. Cuban resorts now show up on online travel searches. It's a new day for that beleaguered island.
Visiting a new place usually brings with it the opportunity to sample its cuisine. But countries newly opened to tourism, at least on a large scale, typically take a number of years to develop the infrastructure to accommodate visitors properly. However, with many restaurant owners and top chefs having fled Havana for Miami and points north decades ago, it may be that the best "local" food can actually be found right now in the United States rather than in its homeland. If the talent is here and authentic ingredients as well (which they are) then why not?
As is to be expected, South Florida has quite a few Cuban dining establishments but for a city without a particularly close association to that heritage, New York has a surprising number of venues that will make you feel for an hour or two like you are in Havana, albeit with working electricity and potable water. And true to form, most are good to very good. One that shines above the rest is in Greenwich Village and is aptly named Cuba.
The "above the rest" vibe is apparent as soon as you walk in the door. No fake palm trees or murals with parrots and harborside quais, and no waitstaff in loud patterned shirts. Instead there is a casual elegance about the place. Not that it's fancy - far from it: Mexican tile floors, wooden tables, continuous seating along the walls. But there is a lovely wood bar, interesting ceiling treatments and comfy high-backed leather upholstered chairs and banquettes. The welcoming service helps to enhance it all, even offering departing clients a complimentary hand rolled cigar from a high-piled plate.
But long before you are offered that stogie, you should start with a mojito. They are reputed to be the best in New York, and hyperbole or not, they do go down easily while waiting for your starter. If you are lucky, the special for the day will be Frituras De Yuca, cassava cakes topped with roasted pork, onions and a mojo sauce. If not, the Chicharron Prensado, succulent pork belly surround by savory vegatables, will do nicely. A special for the main might be Mariscada al Ajillo, a seafood stew more akin to Bouillabaisse than a true Spanish mariscada and complete with half a lobster. Unfortunately my Vaca Frita must have been sourced from Goodyear rather than Pat LaFrieda, but the Lechon Asado which replaced it was superb. And if you order nothing else, by all means get the Yuquito Frita side, yucca fries delicately crispy on the outside and nearly liquid once you bite into them - the best I've ever had, including in Miami! To finish, you could do worse than the Torrejas, a wondrous fried bread pudding with bananas. ¡Delicioso!
Cuba, 222 Thompson St (W Third St), 212 420-7878, cubanyc.com