Havana Is Open
Castro resigns! I'm not old enough to remember a Cuba without El Caballo in the presidential compound, but in solidarity with those who are, we hied ourselves over to Little Havana in Deerfield Beach last week, wanting to absorb the flavor of the prelapsarian island metropolis. The closest I've ever been to Cuba was onboard a ship passing those foggy shores early one morning: Wreathed in mist, with the faintest outlines of Guantanamo visible, the country looked as mysterious and inaccessible as El Dorado. My late father did get to Havana, illegally, a couple of years ago, and the mojitos and the music suited his expansive temperament. I remember his remarking sadly on the ironies: the world's party-lovingest people yoked for half a century to the world's dourest president.
When the country opens up to us americanos again, I'll be first in line to board a skiff off the southernmost tip of Key West. Until then, Little Havana is probably the closest substitute. The original of this Cuban staple is in Miami, and the Deerfield restaurant hopped from one side of the street to the other a couple of years ago, adding a fountain and an outdoor patio where die-hard cigar smokers can stretch their legs. The place is big — a bright room floored in tile, decorated with wood mementos and gewgaws and color-saturated murals of Havana street scenes where chicas parade their oversized booties up and down the avenues, guys swiveling to watch them pass. Below the murals, bare wooden tables and heavy, high-backed chairs would be austere in another setting. But even with every word and snort of laughter echoing against the tiles, the place is never less than cozy, maybe because it's so full of happy people.
Yes, they were happy — the expat families, the two old guys in white shirts sharing a dripping steak, the woman with the tangerine-colored hairdo and red claws, the tourists, the babies gumming their yuca frita. The wait staff was happy, weaving under trays the size of cartwheels, fumbling for the right English word. Fidel himself would have had to crack a smile, faced with a drinks menu on which the mango mojitos are just $5.99 each! I can't recall the last time I saw a cocktail at any restaurant for less than $9 — and the full consequences hit me as I sipped. The warm flush, the unmistakable tingle — that barman wasn't skimping on the rum. I could afford to drink roughly twice as many as usual. In fact, a menu tour of the cocktails was clearly in order — I kept drinking until I'd sufficiently sampled the Cuba-rita, a margarita made with lots of lime, rum, and triple sec, a pleasant, sugary quaff that tasted exactly like heavily spiked lemonade.
If a trio of rum drinks doesn't put you in the mood for the Taste of Havana ($12.99) appetizer, you have no right to be taking up space here. Cubans do their cooking exactly one way, the right way, which is to say, fried. Dinner at Little Havana is more or less an assortment of sponges whose object is to soak up the cheap cocktails — but that's not to say it isn't all perfectly scrumptious. The Taste of Havana is a platter of meat and starch heaped roughly to eyebrow height; I figured its caloric load at about 3,500. You've got your roasted chicken thighs, seasoned with a peppery rub, meat maintaining only the loosest possible relationship to the bone — tender and silky enough to make you wish you'd ordered the quarter chicken, or even the half one, as an entrée. There are ham croquettes the size of a fat cigar, a fried bread-crumb crust holding together a melting goo of finely minced ham and salty cheese, hot enough to sear the roof of your mouth and delicious enough that you don't care a bit. Elongated, delicate, salted plantain chips are so sheer that you can see through them; they leave a faint, oily sheen on your lips. A cornmeal tamale with a dab of chopped meat in the middle is flecked with red peppers and drizzled with mojo and has the consistency of clotted cream. And crisp yucca wedges are elevated to incredible when you swipe them through a cup of cheesy pepper sauce. Only the dry pork chunks, so tough we couldn't cut them, got pushed aside.
What a mess we'd made. We looked like somebody had dropped a grease balloon from the ceiling, and our table was ground zero. Our shirts were stained, our lips as bee-stung as Angelina's from all the salt, heat, and oil we'd applied. I unbuttoned my pants; my partner groaned and rolled her eyes. Then two waitresses trotted over with giant trays balanced on their shoulders and set down in front of us what we could not possibly contemplate: ropa vieja ($10.99), fried white fish with cilantro sauce ($14.99), two bowls of black beans, two dishes of white rice, and a couple of side orders of candied plantains.
Oof. So we'd diet tomorrow. Steam rose from our plates, the mingling scents of cilantro, garlic, chilies, green peppers, tomato, and cumin. Shredded skirt steak had been cooked until it sang with flavor in a thick stew of vegetables and bay leaves, onion, and cumin — sharp on the tongue with a dozen nuances and still the satisfying heaviness of beef releasing its fats and juices. The fish was lightly fried, fresh as good air, and complemented perfectly by its dollop of cilantro sauce. The black beans were expertly seasoned; the sweet plantains left smears of burnt sugar, as rich as butterscotch, on our fingers.
For dessert, we put away an egg flan ($3.29) — or I did, at any rate; my partner was in a coma by this time. It was the classic version, and good, but they have one made with cheese as well. Plus rice pudding and tres leches, coconut flan and crema catalana, and cheesecake. My God, the place is excellent, and even with all those drinks, we hadn't spent $60.
Castro was out. What a long, long half a century they'd had of it, even the lucky ones who'd left, lost to the families who'd stayed behind. But memory of home is distilled in its recipes: lamb shanks in wine, pot roast, palomilla steak, chicken with mushrooms, paella Valenciana, Spanish sausage omelets, vaca frita, pork in tamarindo sauce, or a parrillada grill for two. You could look into the menu at Little Havana — the Cuban sandwich, the fabada soup, shrimp in flamingo sauce — and see the shadow outlines of its namesake. Cuba libre. We can only hope.
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