Things Happen Strangely in Cuba
The Man from Havana Is Serving Lunch
Acouple I know went to Cuba for their honeymoon. It remains illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba, and while the policy shows signs of crumbling, they still could have received a heavy fine. They bought a British guidebook, made their arrangements through a Canadian travel agency, and flew through Cancún instead of Vancouver (because it was wintertime, and coming back from Vancouver with a tan might look peculiar). They traveled with a large amount of cash for all their expenses—you can't use a credit card in a place you're not supposed to be—and they brought nothing back except one tiny shell. They left the guidebook in the Cancún airport.
They said they loved Cuba. They said their hotel in Havana was palatial, with a central courtyard full of flowers and slightly slanting stairs; their room was vast, with marble floors and three balconies and a sitting room with statuary, and it cost them under $100 a night. They said they went to bars where Hemingway drank, with rattan ceiling fans stirring the air; they said they walked through streets lined with beautiful buildings with peeling paint and hanging laundry and, occasionally, one that was just a facade with a tree growing in a pile of rubble behind it. When they got tired of walking, they said they took a coco-taxi, which was like a big tin football helmet welded to a scooter, with the drivers fearless of all the barreling 1950s American cars and grinding trucks and giant ruts and plentiful exhaust.
They said things happened strangely in Cuba—that there seemed to be some larger scheme, or lack thereof, that you'd never understand. Even with decent Spanish, they said, they couldn't make sense of the day they tried to go to a matinee of the Havana ballet; they were told to come back in a few hours, at which point they were ushered to the front of a line and down into a low-ceilinged basement club, where the entertainment proved to be a game show where a sexy, foulmouthed hostess collected shoes and condoms and full drinks from the crowd, then live hiphop with a full horn section. They said they went to the bus station one day to reserve tickets to cross the island, like the guidebook recommended, but at the appointed hour early the next morning, they were told they were not going on that bus and to come back 12 hours later. They said they contracted with a friendly stranger they met on the street to drive them the next leg of their trip—the guidebook indicated that this was fine to do—and at the appointed hour the next morning, they got in his car, which was made out of rust, and when he stopped at a gas station along the highway and bought a beer, so did they, and when he handed them off without explanation to another less-friendly stranger in the middle of nowhere, they got in that slightly-less-rusty car and said hello to the woman with the bulging duffel bag in the front seat and hoped for the best. When they got where they were going, just fine, they said they found a mile of utterly deserted, unbelievable white-sand beach, with the clearest-blue water they'd ever seen. They said they went to a Christmas Eve festival in a small town where the celebration consisted of large-gauge fireworks blasting among, and sometimes directly into, the crowded town square in the summery night.
They said, however, that the food in Cuba was terrible. They said the restaurants themselves were great; some were in people's ground-floor apartments, with doilies and marvelous lamps and tables abutting a humming refrigerator. But a flat, gristly piece of meat with some flat, dry-yet-greasy fried plantains and moros—rice mixed with beans—was the norm, they said. They went to a fancier government-run restaurant where they waited in a very long line; the interior was like a proper old-fashioned men's club, all dim and glossy-wood-lined, with cases of inscrutable trophies. Here, they asked the waiter for one thing, then another, then another, and he said each time, formally, that he was very sorry, but they were out of that. Finally, through process of elimination, they ended up eating cheese soup that was like a bowl of paste and some flat, gristly meat. They said they ate a greasy approximation of tapas at a gorgeous nautical-themed Spanish-ish restaurant; they said they ate pizza like it was made by a person who had seen a photograph of a pizza, or had been given the briefest description of pizza, but not both. The pressed Cuban sandwiches they found were made with processed ham-loaf, but, in context, were pretty good.
They said they did not mind the bad food in Cuba—that considering the people there had subsisted on so little for so long, and the fact that no one was allowed until very recently to trade with their neighbors and had to secretly raise pigs in bathtubs and so on, only a very ugly American would complain. They drank Havana Club rum and smoked excellent cigars and found the world's best pineapple juice that came in juice-box-type cartons instead of tinny-tasting tin. (At the bus station, they said, you could get a juice-box mojito, which wasn't bad at all, and strange corn-puff chips like a cross between a Bugle and a piece of Styrofoam.) They did gaze out at the ocean—which is said to be particularly pristine around Cuba because the country couldn't afford chemical pesticides and fertilizers—and wish for shrimp. The only fish was flatly filleted and nondescript, they said, and every place was always out of shrimp.
Things happen strangely at Sodo's new Cafe Con Leche, the Cuban restaurant brought to you by the man from Havana who used to run the Paladar Cubano sandwich truck out on Aurora. It's just past Starbucks' headquarters on First Avenue South, and it may be completely empty later in the afternoon—it's currently open only for lunch—except for a man smoking a cigar outside and a tableful of people speaking Spanish and intermittently drumming on the table, which happens to have a varnished tree trunk as a base. There's a bar, made with more pretty varnished tree branches, but no alcohol. (It's coming soon, owner Pedrito Vargas says.) One mural of multicolored Cuban buildings and another of an old car make sense, while some lettering about a glacier in Patagonia arguably does not.
The perfectly friendly service has a hesitant quality, and may also have a charming if somewhat impenetrable Russian accent. Your server might write down, carefully, every word of your order in full, which seems like a fine idea, in context. If you ask for salt and pepper, you may only get one-half of the pair. Your salad ($6), which looks like it was made by a person who's never personally interacted with a salad—a uniform lettuce-bed with five slices of avocado, six slices of underripe tomato, and five half-moons of raw white onion, carefully arrayed—might come nude, and a request for dressing may yield some confusion and then, eventually, the world's tiniest plastic cup of very plain vinaigrette. When you get your bill, they might say something about how they'd prefer cash but that they could take a card, probably.
If you go looking for the restroom, you'll find yourself suddenly in an immense, high-ceilinged space with semicircular booths along the walls, lovely wooden armoires, and huge wall panels depicting, say, an accordion player or a pair of legs in fishnets. A soccer game might be showing on a gigantic screen, with two ladies eating at a table in the half-dark. There's a potted palm on the end of a long bar, and when you reach the bathroom, you might find yourself groping for the light switch in the pitch black. You will eventually figure out that this is not Cafe Con Leche but Club Sur, which seems to be somewhat new, has live music on a varying schedule, and is a place that, under the direction of the man from Havana, looks like it's probably very fun.
The food at Cafe Con Leche is, by and large, quite good, though the ropa vieja ($10.95), which is a stewy shredded beef dish, was stringy and salty the day I tried it. The pastry shell of the empanadas ($6 for two, beef or chicken) was a bit heavy, but the filling also had hard-boiled egg, olives, and raisins, and the chimichurri dipping sauce was full of fresh herbs and tartly bright. Con Leche's pressed Cuban sandwiches ($7–$9.95), which come with standard-issue french fries, are very tasty, especially the ones with Pedrito's famous garlic sauce; the pan con lechon, made with falling-apart slow-roasted pork, is particularly delicious. And the churrasco timbero ($12.95) was the antithesis of a piece of flat, gristly meat—it's a gigantic skirt steak, luminously moist and tender, served with moros and maduros, which are plantains fried until caramelly on the outside and like tender banana pudding within. These maduros are so good, you could eat them for dessert.
The day I tried to order it, Cafe Con Leche was out of shrimp.