Wherever we were, it seemed sure we weren't where we wanted to be. The taxi driver had grinned and waved as he sped off, leaving us alone on an empty, pitch-black street somewhere in the middle of Havana. Si, this was where we would eat dinner, he had said, or so we hoped he had said, since we couldn't make heads or tails of the rapid-fire Spanish that followed his most sincere si.
We stood on the barren sidewalk, silent as we tried to figure out what to do. The city's power was out again and the only light came from lanterns glowing in intermittent windows. Even if there had been a sign indicating a restaurant anywhere and we knew there wasn't, since we were visiting a paladar, a café run out of a private home we wouldn't have been able to see it in the velvet night.
I'd been warned that the cuisine of current-day Cuba left a lot to be desired. With shortages and rationing being commonplace, finding food of any kind was looking to be a challenge.
502 South College, Tempe
Yucca fritters: $5.95
Cuban club: $7.95
Ropa vieja: $12.95
Barbecue pork ribs: $14.95
480-829-7707. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Friday; dinner, 3:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday.
An old man appeared in the Havana gloom then, sweeping the walk in front of his home, a crumbling colonial mansion.
"Paladar?" I asked the old man helplessly. "Comida?" I resisted the urge to make the universal gesture for eating, that boorish tourist behavior of pretending to shovel food from my hand cupped in the shape of a bowl.
He smiled broadly and pointed up a narrow flight of stairs snaking up the side of a faded apartment building next door. "Si, paladar," he confirmed, then returned to his sweeping.
As we felt our way up the staircase, the lights suddenly flickered, then revived. By now, our third evening in the Cuban capital, we were used to the unpredictable whims of the government-operated power systems, but each blackout remained its own adventure. We paused at a door on the second floor and hesitantly knocked.
There was a scurrying from inside the apartment, and the door cracked open. A thin face peeked out, scowling. "Paladar?" I asked hopefully. "No," the man hissed, quickly shutting us out.
Another flight of stairs, another unmarked door, but this time the door was the right one. We'd found La Casa de Adelaida, the residence of Adelaida Herrera, artist and entrepreneurial chef. Finally, we were about to experience a paladar, one of dozens of government-approved private-home restaurants that dot old town Havana.
Or maybe not. As it turned out, many of the menu items we wanted weren't available that night, since the owner hadn't been able to find ingredients in the cripplingly expensive dollars-only specialty store or on the black market. We, the first two customers of the evening, managed to secure some satisfying snapper. We recommended the dish to the second group that arrived, but by then, the kitchen was out of fish.
We began to suspect that Cuba was no longer the ideal place to find the best in Cuban food. It wouldn't be until we returned home to the Valley, in fact, that we would find the fare we were looking for. For traditional Cuban fare in all its customary glory, we discovered, it's a lot easier to take a quick drive to Tempe.
"Yucca fritters with pineapple mojo," my companion is saying now, wistfully. "Sofrito chicken. Real ropa vieja. Wouldn't that have been great to have had in Havana?"
I have to agree. We're sitting at a most unlikely place for Cuban cuisine, the new Iguana Lounge, tucked in the panhandle of ASU directly across from the Sun Devil stadium. It's summer, school is out, it's just past happy hour and the restaurant is virtually deserted. The place doesn't look Cuban, but calculated chic, with a contemporary-retro '60s and '70s fusion flare. Framed by floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and concrete block walls, and sparsely but stylishly decorated in mint and mango, the cafe might easily be home to precious bites like trendy heirloom tomato soup, sushi or funky sliders.
But then again, one would think that a trip to Cuba origin of such fabled dishes as picadillo habañero (ground beef simmered with raisins, potato, stuffed olives and zesty seasoning) and camarones varadero (jumbo shrimp breaded and smothered in a sauce of pineapple, guava and avocado) would have had me gorging endlessly.
Instead, I returned to the U.S. ravenous and now find I'm feasting on much better fare in a shuttered-for-the-summer college town. Cuban food prepared, no less, by a Greek gentleman with a distinctly non-Castro culinary background. Iguana owner Spyros Scocos, ex-husband of lauded Phoenix chef RoxSand Scocos (RoxSand), has been known since 1986 for the fusion concept of French and Asian ingredients, flavors and techniques. In 1990, he and RoxSand broadened their vision with the Paniolo restaurant, showcasing a mix of Spanish, South American, Polynesian, Hawaiian and Western U.S. influences. Since then, the Biltmore-based Paniolo has closed, RoxSand and Spyros have parted ways, and in April, after almost a year of promised debuts, Iguana Lounge finally opened.
And now the dish in front of me ropa vieja tastes even better than when I first tried it at the Valley's longest-standing Cuban eatery, Havana Café. Then, it was a macho meld of lean, shredded beef braised in a zesty sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs and red wine. Tonight at the Iguana, however, the succulent platter suddenly seems much more valuable. In Cuba, beef belongs to the government, so ropa vieja often arrives fashioned with low-grade lamb; Iguana's beef is excellent, tender and so flooded with juices that the meaty flavor melds into sides of firm rice and robust black beans.
So now I'm eating with a vengeance, consuming copious amounts of the Iguana's yucca fritters, dipping the sweet-potato-like fried bundles in pineapple mojo (the national table sauce of Cuba, combining olive oil, garlic, and fruit or herbs). If only I'd been able to enjoy lamb picadillo empanadas like these at my hotel overlooking the Capitol, instead of quelling my hunger pangs with too many mojitos. The half-dozen crispy turnovers are addictive, stuffed with juicy ground lamb, peppers and fiery spice, and tempered by dips in accompanying mint mojo.
And what an experience it would have been to have nibbled on arepas like these in one of those Havana paladars. Scocos' chef has worked magic with these sweet corn cakes, golden-edged outside and creamy inside, paired with goat cheese and slathered with chunky guacamole.
My friend looks crushed when I suggest that he order Iguana's garlic-roasted chicken with yucca, beans and rice. By the time we had landed back at the Miami Airport, we'd eaten so much of the dish that we swore it would never touch our lips again. Lucky for him now, tonight's chicken hasn't finished cooking, so I allow him the barbecue pork ribs. "Just like they'd be in Cuba," he says, "except these bones have meat on them." A lot, in fact, tender and rich in a thick, peppery glaze.
At lunch a few days later, we're-seated next to Iguana's landlord, Grady Gammage. He's impressed that we found the place, tucked next to the former Greyhound Bus Station. He eats here several days a week, he says, urging us to tell our friends.
As if on cue, crowds suddenly appear; our party of four swells to a full restaurant, sending our lone server into overdrive. He's a pro, though, not like the staff at Hemingway's old Havana hangout El Floridita, today a horridly expensive, mediocre tourist restaurant where we had to leave the table to get a waiter whenever we wanted something.
I feel almost guilty for not loving the Iguana Joe, a pretty ordinary sloppy joe of braised beef and a mildly spiced, roasted, smoked tomato sauce. We probably would have come to blows fighting over it in Cuba. But here, in the land of beef, it's boring.
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A sofrito chicken sandwich isn't much of a munch, either, the bird blackened in a mildly interesting version of the Caribbean seasoning of garlic, onion, bell and sweet peppers, tomato and cilantro.
But Gammage approves of my choice of a Cuban club, and so do I. This sandwich was my unrealized grail on the island; I never could find it, but I find great satisfaction at the Iguana. It's perfect, the thick bread stuffed with toothsome pulled pork, shaved prosciutto, cheese, tomato, aioli and the surprising minty oomph of mojo. Sides of deeply potatoey shoestring fries, coleslaw and a pickle are pleasing partners.
One highlight of my Cuban culinary adventure was a remarkable gazpacho, found at another paladar, La Guardia, once again hidden at the top of three barely lit flights of stairs in what appeared to be an abandoned building. (La Guardia is best known as the setting for several scenes of the Oscar-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate.) The cold soup we found there almost made going hungry the rest of the week worthwhile. Yet it wasn't as good as Scocos' recipe, tumbled in bright broth so sparkly I suspect carbonation, and bobbing with sharp fresh tomato, red pepper, avocado, celery, scallion and onion. I pass the large parfait glass around the table, my friends and I trying to be polite but spooning much more greedily than good manners would allow.
It was a pricey lesson, requiring U.S. government permission, a chartered plane and lots of run-ins with Cuba's Communist lifestyle. But now I know: Delicious Cuban cuisine isn't so hard to find. Just go to Tempe. The lights will be on, and there'll be plenty of food in the kitchen.