Sunday, January 15, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare Some Authentic Cuban Food?

Authors Note: Cuba today is a country of deep social, economic, and political contrasts. Trying to get a handle on Cuba in ten short days of travel is akin to trying to explain the Superbowl to others while viewing it live through a sheet of paper with a single pin hole in it. I am sure we missed much in Cuba on this first trip, but what we did see made us curious for more.
Part Three - Brother, Can You Spare Some Authentic Cuban Food?
If you want to see a great, if not slightly sanitized expose on Havana, look no further than Anthony Bourdians show No Reservations one of the best travel/food shows on television right now. On our last night in Panama before we jetted off for Cuba we watched his show in our hotel room. It was an eye opener and an instant bucket list builder because we both fell in love with the bar Puerto de Sagua, skip to timeline 5.40 to see the place.

Oh yeah, the Mojito drink source!
Sometimes ya just gotta track a place down and on our third day, tired of government bars with notoriously overpriced and horribly weak mixed drinks, we went on a mission to get drunk on real Cuban Mojitos at Puerto de Sagua. 

Quick note here, I am a stone cold fan of the Mojito. As a drink there are few cocktails that match its crisp freshness and powerful kick. I have been seen heroically tackling 64 ounce Monster Mojitos in South Beach, Miami but a simple well made Mojito is my drink of choice on any given day.

Puerto de Sagua is not too hard to find. Hail a horse drawn carriage at Central Park downtown and say "take me to the train station" the bar is on the left about a block away and features a 1945 art deco style building painted in Caribbean style blue complete with  porthole style windows with fish tanks in them. At night this place is an atypical 40's watering hole with glowing tropical fish windows and one of the last working neon signs in the entire city.

Havana today
When you open the door take a last look at the street with the vintage cars going by and you are transported back in time. Cuban time travel is a pretty neat thing when you hit a bar like this one.

If you are lucky you'll meet Raul who was the bartender on duty for Anthony's show. We were lucky and apparently the first who have seen the episode to enter his bar and recognize him. After explaining he was famous in America Raul treated us to several vintage Mojitos (with lots of rum) and we settled in for an afternoon of lazy conversation in a wood paneled bar that was very much the same as when Hemingway dropped by for a drink or two back in 1956. 

Yes, dammit, apparently Hemingway hit this bar as well.

Kudos to Anthony's production staff because they found the only real gem of a bar in all of Havana and if there's only one thing you do in Havana it's go to Puerto de Sagua and say hi to Raul.

Hot Tip: The drinks get stronger if you mention you saw Raul on American television.

Street food with a side of fly?
Anthony's show also featured Cuban food but finding real Cuban food in Cuba is hard these days. It's  all about the ingredients. I encountered the same thing in China in the late 90's as a tour guide. The Chinese agricultural system at that time was wrecked so the food we ate at hotels was sub par at best inedible at worst. 

Cuba is going through the same thing right now so if you are looking for a Miami style Cuban meal in Havana forget about it. I don't care if you are Gordon Ramsey, if you give a chef two rocks and some salt and pepper to work with the results will inevitably be culinary crap and we found most of the meals outside our hotel to be the same.

Maybe after Cuba opens and produce flows into ports from around the world we'll see a quick return to the sumptuous Cuban flavors that made this country famous. But as long as locals have to pay 3-6 pesos for a pound for locally grown second rate tomatoes on a monthly average salary of just 20-90 pesos that's not going to happen anytime soon, which was o.k by us, because the vintage Mojitos in our own out of the way time warp bar went down great.

Next: Valedero, Ship in a Bottle Tourism

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