Cafe Reviews

Havana's Finest

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.

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.