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A Taste of Cuba . . . in Florida
In Miami and Key West, Searching for Authentic Island Cuisine

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.

The restaurant's name is a cultural statement -- it's an acronym for "young upscale Cuban Americans" and a spin on yucca (pronounced joo-ka), a tropical root vegetable sometimes called cassava (the disfigured yam alluded to earlier) that serves as a base ingredient in Cuban cuisine, much as the potato is in American dishes. Though bland in its most basic boiled form, the vegetable holds enormous possibilities -- it can be fried, mashed, covered in garlicky mojo or cooked dozens of other ways.

Yucca, plantains, avocado, mango -- the luscious jewels of the tropics are all sold at Los PinareƱos Fruteria, an airy little produce and flower market on Calle Ocho operated by Angel and Guillamina Hernandez, Cuban immigrants who met in Miami, and their adult son, Angel Jr. Tucked into a corner of the store is a table with a few chairs, where you can enjoy a drink from the natural juice bar or sample what Guillamina has made for the day's lunch.

Angel Jr. switches from English to Spanish without missing a beat. Cuba is but a dream to him, an island conjured from photographic images and the stories his parents have told him.

"This is where I'm going when he's out of there," Angel Jr. said, pointing at a picture of a seaside resort with palm trees and bikini-clad women. "He," of course, meant Fidel Castro. Tapping a finger on a smiling bathing beauty, he said, "They're waiting for me."

The painful reality is, however, that much of what was so beautiful in Cuba has deteriorated. Few exiles I spoke to expressed a desire to return to their native land.

Cuban culture is harder to find in Key West now than it was at the end of the 19th century, when the Cuban cigar industry prospered there. The island has become such a heterogeneous place, filled with tourists and military types, gay men and women, Caribs and aging hippies. But Cuban culture is there if you look for it, particularly Cuban cafes and restaurants, the best of which are off Duval Street, the main drag that connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic in one mile of bars, restaurants and shops.

There is a handful of Cuban mix delis across the island -- "mix" because they put lettuce, tomato and mayo on their Cuban sandwiches. Many of these offer Cuban coffee, a potent and frothy brown java often served in espresso cups, which can be purchased at walk-up windows. It's common to see yellow coolers of water on the counters, either for clearing the palate before taking coffee or for easing the aftershock.

El Siboney is the best spot for authentic and delicious Cuban cuisine. Housed in a modest brick building, this, too, is no-fuss, with flatware in paper packets and plexiglass tabletops, but the food has drawn the likes of Cuban American entertainer Gloria Estefan. Three generations of Martin men -- grandfather Francisco, father Frank and son Frankie Jr. -- serve up long, flavorful strips of steak that fall off the edge of the plate and sweet roasted plantains decadent enough to be dessert. Frank arrives at the restaurant at 5 a.m. to begin cooking the marinated meats. It takes four hours to roast the most succulent pork I've ever tasted.

Hearty bean soups are the specialty at B's Restaurant, another hole-in-the-wall frequented by island residents, especially hungry Navy types. It's a no-frills place with a handful of tables and a lunch counter, but what the restaurant lacks in decor the staff makes up for in warmth and welcome.

Though the restaurant was sold last year, the Cubria family still runs the eatery, as it has for 23 years. "The tradition hasn't changed," said Bertha Cubria, an outgoing, middle-aged woman who inherited her mother's fortitude and name. "I know what everyone eats, drinks, likes."

A waitress sets down food for a group of men in the back of the restaurant. I don't know what they ordered, but it earned the kind of satisfactory groans usually reserved for Mother's cooking, tasted after a long sojourn from home.

Nicole Cotroneo last wrote for Travel about Riverhead, on Long Island.

Details: Cuba in Florida

IN MIAMI:

El Pub (1548 SW Eighth St. ) offers hearty meals at diner prices ($5 to $13 per entree). There's an extensive list of daily specials and even American selections (hamburgers, tuna salad, BLT) for the faint of heart.

Yuca (501 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach ) is a great restaurant for people-watching with large windows looking out over Lincoln Road Mall and outdoor tables. Decor is stylish and minimalist while food is complex, delicious and pricey. Dinner entrees range from $24 to $40. In addition to a mojito, try Hatuey, a Cuban beer named after a Taino Indian chief. It's light but not "lite."

For shopping, Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the heart of Little Havana, is the place for excellent Cuban art. There are several galleries and studios, including

Maxoly (1600 SW Eighth St. ,

www.maxoly.com)

, a well-lit space with a permanent collection and a current exhibit of Cuban masters.

Domino Park (SW Eighth Street and 16th Avenue), formally Maximo Gomez Park, is worth a stop. It's a meeting place for retired residents, where a game of dominoes is a social event.

Memorial Boulevard (13th Avenue, off SW Eighth St.) is a parkway dotted with monuments, including an eternal flame honoring the heroes of the Bay of Pigs, a statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, a memorial to poet and revolutionary Jose Marti, and an enormous ceiba tree where offerings to saints are often placed.

IN KEY WEST:

El Siboney (900 Catherine St.), named after a Cuban Indian tribe, is as close to Cuban home cooking as it gets.

B's Restaurant (1500 Bertha St.) isn't named for the street it's on but for the matriarch in the Cubria family, Bertha, who still makes the desserts (flan,

natilla, rice pudding). Their motto,

"Bueno, bonito y barato," means "good, pretty and cheap." They're not fooling -- dinner entrees range from $6 to $10.

Considered touristy by some locals,

El Meson de Pepe (410 Wall St.) is in a historic brick building in Mallory Square, site of the Sunset Celebration. Patrons can dine on an outdoor veranda, in the garden "cistern" area or the "historium" main dining room near the gift shop. The menu includes some Spanish fare, a nod to chef-owner Jose Manuel Diaz's culinary education in Spain. Diaz also owns the

Cuban Mix Deli (3840 N. Roosevelt Blvd.), with Cuban mix and roast pork sandwiches, cafe con leche and tropical flavored ices.

The

San Carlos Institute (516 Duval St., 305-294-3887), founded by Cuban immigrants and revolutionaries in 1871 and declared "La Casa Cuba" by Jose Marti, has a library and museum on Key West history primarily focused on 19th- and 20th- century Cuban exiles. The institute also hosts concerts, art exhibits and plays.

Cuba! Cuba! (814 Duval St. ) is a great shop for Cuban art and crafts as well as T-shirts, books and music. Check out the paintings and ceramics, imported from Cuba with a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

-- Nicole Cotroneo

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