Cafe Reviews

Havana's Finest

Page 2 of 3

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.

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet