Nosh Box: Tasting Cuba Libre

“Biggest Restaurant Trends of 2019” according to Food & Wine will include Latin American cooking. So March is an ideal time to get a leg up on the food of our island neighbor to the south: Cuba.


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Cubano sandwich

CC Ruth Hartnup

Looking Back: The island’s name may elicit memories of salsa music, like the bolero, mambo and cha-cha; or images of vintage pre-1959 cars and hand-rolled cigars; or perhaps villainous names, like Fidel Castro or Meyer Lansky.

For those old enough to remember, tensions began almost 60 years ago, in January 1961, when President Eisenhower broke U.S. diplomatic relations with this Caribbean island neighbor in a year that included the CIA-backed and failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

About nine month later, a U.S. U-2 spy plane pilot photographed Russian missiles on the largest island in the Caribbean, the Republic of Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had put the weapons there some months earlier, with the permission of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

After tete-a-tete, white-knuckle negotiations between the White House and the Kremlin, nuclear engagement was avoided: The crisis ended with Khrushchev agreeing to remove the missiles—after President Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba.

During the interim, while U.S.-Soviet relations experienced an ebb and flow, U.S.-Cuban relations have remained polarized—despite inroads during the Obama years when diplomatic relations resumed, and the continuing presence of an American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Let Your Taste Buds Do the Traveling: For U.S. citizens, travel to Cuba is restricted, and tourists remain prohibited. People with an urge to learn more about this small nation can research books, movies, and videos. But what better way to experience an essential element of Cuban culture right now than to enjoy and share the foods of Cuba. Not only are they are available in local eateries, but they are also easily prepared at home.

Starting at the Top: If there’s a national Cuban dish it’s clearly ropa vieja. This is shredded flank steak that has been brazed in a zesty tomato-paste and beef-broth sauce. Throw in onions, bell pepper and garlic, then season with cumin and cilantro. Finally, a dash of olive oil and vinegar are added for mouth-feel and balance. But ironically, most Cubans don’t eat it, because beef is controlled by the state in Cuba, and is too expensive for the natives.

Most Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken, or pork and fish as entrées. The typical supporting cast would first of all include rice and beans—more specifically yellow rice and black beans. These two foods are part of Cubans’ daily lunch and dinner. To prevent boredom, red beans, mung beans, or chickpeas may be substituted in the mix.
Other popular side dishes would be plantains—boiled and mashed, or fried—and root vegetables called viandas, including yams, sweet potatoes, and yucca.

Viva Cubano! Ironically, the most commonly recognized Cuban dish stateside, the Cubano sandwich, is really a Yankee ham-and-cheese dressed in guayabera clothing. You can find them everywhere in Miami, but not so in Havana.

Canonized by Cuban-Americans, it’s an easy DIY fix at home. As with other classic regional sandwiches, like the cheesesteak in Philly, the po’ boy and muffuletta in New Orleans, the Primanti in Pittsburgh, or the Hot Brown in Louisville, the distinguishing element is the local bread.

To DIY, most likely, you won’t find Cuban bread on the West Coast. Choose a long, French or Italian loaf or roll that’s crunchy outside, but soft inside. But don't use a baguette or sourdough. Slice, then spread bread with butter or mayo, and Dijon mustard. Layer with sliced ham and roast pork. Top with Swiss cheese and garlic-dill pickles. In a cast-iron pan, grill-pan, or Panini press, grill until browned and cheese has melted.

Top traditional Cuban drinks—There’s little or no experimentation involved with sampling Cuban drinks: The top drinks have become household words, and all are based on Cuba’s national liquor: rum.

• Leading off is that blend of rum, lemon juice, and sugar, shaken with cubed ice—or frappeado style in a blender—known as the daiquiri.

• Next up, and increasing in popularity, is that mix of rum, sparkling soda, sugar, lemon juice, and muddled mint: the mojito.

• The third elixir combines light rum, coconut milk, and pineapple juice, blended or shaken with ice. In an un-neighborly move, during 1978 the piña colada was co-opted by Puerto Rico as its national drink.

• The final entry is technically a highball. That’s a cocktail with only two ingredients, one of which is non-alcoholic. Christened a Cuba libre to honor free Cuba after the Spanish-American War, in our vernacular it has morphed into simply rum & coke.

You can taste these drinks in many places or at home. But these local spots can provide the authentic foods of Cuba:

Habanas Cuban Cuisine, 1518 Park St., Alameda, 510-521-0130,

Caña Cuban Parlor & Café, 530 Lake Park Aven., Oakland, 510-832-1515

Havana, 1516 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek, 925-939-4555

Yorezant Blanco Cuban Cousine, 37644 Crocus Court, Newark, 510-505-0177.

If it’s just a Cubano sandwich you like to sample, try Cholita Linda, 1337 Park St., Alameda, 510-648-3839.

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