A Taste of Cuba . . . in Florida

By Nicole Cotroneo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2004

Cuban Americans love their food so much they let it run through the streets. In southern Florida communities such as Miami's Little Havana and Key West, chickens are everywhere. On sidewalks and driveways, roosters chase after hens, crowing and trilling and flashing lustrous orange-red plumes. Roosters have even been memorialized in whimsical six-foot statues in the cultural heart of Little Havana, along Calle Ocho -- that's SW Eighth Street to you -- between 12th and 27th avenues.

"What's up with the chickens?" I asked Ernesto Baez, a young man sitting in an information booth at Maximo Gomez Park. It's known locally as Domino Park, because dozens of men, most 55 and older, spend their days there hunched over game tables pondering chess pieces and dominoes.

Amused, Baez repeated, "What's up with the chickens?" He paused. "I don't know what's up with the chickens."

It never occurred to Baez to wonder why domestic fowl strut along these particular Miami streets. Chickens in this community are like the walk-up coffee windows, the abierto (open) signs, the Madonnas in shop windows -- they seem strange only to strangers. For Cuban Americans, they are the remnants of home.

Few things, with the exception of music, connect Cuban Americans to their homeland more than the food. More than satisfying sustenance, Cuban dishes are sensual memories, the smell and taste of which can usher an exile back to mama's kitchen, where the onion-garlic-pepper aroma of sofrito -- a saute of herbs and vegetables that serves as a foundation in almost every dish -- signaled the start of dinner's preparation.

Cuban food is a Creole cuisine, influenced particularly by Spanish and African cooking -- a glorification of meats and legumes, starchy fruits and vegetables, and citrus. Well-seasoned but not spicy, it's a peasant cuisine developed through utility, not vanity, and for filling the belly as well as satisfying the tongue.

For non-Cubans, the cuisine is a key to unlocking several lifelong mysteries, like what are those fat green banana-looking things sitting in the supermarket near row upon row of sunny Chiquita bunches? And those long, crooked, brown tubers like disfigured yams -- do people eat them? And ultimately: What is Cuba like?

With President Bush's tightening of restrictions on travel to Cuba, barrios such as Little Havana and islands such as Key West, which sits 90 miles from Cuba, are the closest most Americans can legally come to wrapping their lips around a hearty Cuban sandwich that's not oozing American mayonnaise.

El Pub, a Calle Ocho landmark for more than 40 years, is filled with Cuban memorabilia from before 1959, the year Castro took power. A map of Cuba covers an entire wall, dotted with postcards and poetry by Jose Marti, leader of the anti-Spanish resistance movement.

El Pub is far from fine dining -- the wait staff doesn't appear to have uniforms, and they're prone to sit and chat with customers they know -- but the food is authentic, attracting more Spanish speakers than English. Most important, beer is served with a chilled glass, and the Cuban sandwich is the kind that makes natives weep: roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread, a flaky-crisp baguette with a buttery white middle. The sandwich is placed briefly in a foil-covered press to melt the cheese and meld the juices. At El Pub, they use Serrano ham, a dry cured meat that adds extra flavor.

"Eet's okay?" the waitress asked as I spooned up the last of my black bean soup and turned to two tostones rellenos, shells of fused fried plantain chips filled with ground beef. Never had it occurred to me to squeeze lime on my ground meat, but there were two lime wedges on my plate . . . The tang mellows and works miracles on heavy fare.

Lime is never so sublime as in a mojito, that not-too-sweet, not-too-tart Cuban cocktail laced with mint. In Miami, some of the best mojitos are made at Yuca, a restaurant in South Beach's trendy Lincoln Road Mall made famous by its original chef, Douglas Rodriguez, now acclaimed for opening Patria in New York City. Yuca takes traditional Cuban food, marries it with flavors from Asia, Europe and Latin America, and presents it like a work of art. Rabo encendido, a Cuban stew of tender oxtail, is paired with an Asian-influenced ginger sweet plantain flan, while the "savage" ceviche -- fresh lobster, calamari, octopus, shrimp and grouper "cooked" by the acidity of a lime marinade and served in a coconut shell -- is spiked with the Caribbean's hot-hot-hot Scotch bonnet pepper.

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