Cuba's secret culinary treasure: La Esperanza
by "Island Expert" Gilberto Lucero
Living in Cuba can be difficult, not because you miss Starbucks, chicken by the bucket, or the newest summer blockbuster. After all, Cuban beauty is cinematic in itself and everywhere you look there is something that dazzles the eye; even the Kafkaesque high rises, with their tiny unwelcoming windows and concrete staircases that seem to lead no where somehow spark the passerby’s imagination and help us forget that we miss things.
What makes living difficult on the island is trying to find those little things like: thread, Band- Aids, sunscreen, scissors, ice trays, wrapping paper, a neighbourhood go-to diner - I can go on with the list but this entry is not about what Cuba lacks but how Cuba can seem to make things appear from out of nowhere.
In the early 1990s, the ever so common mom and pop restaurants run out of people’s homes were made illegal - but after the fall of the USSR when Cuba slipped into a deep and crippling economic crisis the government was forced to re-evaluate their stance on private business, and thus in 1993 (under strict and uncertain laws) the privately owned restaurants were made legal again.
These restaurants, known as Paladares, sprang up everywhere, especially in Havana. They are slick, chic, and eclectic and sometimes impossible to find. Some are more famous and can be found in any travel guide. La Guarida was made famous in the movie Fresa y Chocolate. Doña Eutemia, in the heart of Havana Vieja in Cathedral Square, is famous not only for its food but for its stunning wait staff just as exotic and impeccable as the dishes they serve. Some, perhaps fearful of becoming illegal again, are kept secret and hidden at the end of alleys, behind lush gardens, or at the end of dark and forgotten fishing piers.
If you are looking for that one special Paladar, that harks back to an age where homes were turned into restaurants and small home kitchens could rival any 5-star restaurant in the world, look no further. At the end of Calle 16 in Miramar sits a vine-covered home appropriately named La Esperanza. Run by Huber and his partner, the home has been maintained in impeccable 1950’s charm. It’s like any other home on the block and no one would suspect it was a restaurant if you weren’t in the know. You must call ahead to a make a reservation – tables are limited and the menu is planned accordingly to the number of guests that Huber is expecting.
To enter, you ring the doorbell and Huber answers the door and greets you as if you were a long lost friend. As you walk in, your eye is drawn to the curved ceiling, to the right a staircase leading to what I assumed were private bedrooms; around the corner you walk into a light green living room. The Mid-Century furniture, crystal candy dishes, black and white family portraits, and the many statues of saints are all perfect - as if they had been covered in plastic for decades and then suddenly unveiled for your arrival. Above the pale pink fireplace a painting of man, shirtless, his arm behind his hand, his gaze direct and friendly – this is your first point of seduction. I imagine this was Huber is his early 20’s, but I was always too shy to ask.
This is where home ends and Paladar begins. Tables dot the living room, the dining room, and go into the patio lit with tiny lights. Each tablescape is unique: mismatched dishes, glasses and silverware give La Esperanza a curated and cozy feel. Service like most places in Cuba is friendly but not prompt. Your waiter, or Huber, or his partner will take your order – but don’t expect a menu. This is when the list of delectable possibilities begins – the list is long and fast, and for the non-native speaker it may sound like a waterfall of vowels. But not to worry, Huber speaks English; or better yet just ask "¿qué recomienda?” (What do you recommend?) and I promise you will not be disappointed.
Be ready to enjoy what may come – you never know what will be available: lobster in wine sauce, ropa vieja, lamb, or the catch of the day (literally caught that day from the ocean not a block away). Paladar chefs are remarkably talented and work their magic to modernize Caribbean cuisine with the simplest and available ingredients. But be patient; you never know if the cook will have to run out and look for a fisherman for freshly caught fish, dash to the local agro-mercado for necessary carrots for an impromptu salad, or climb the neighbor’s tree for ripe avocados.
When the food, hot and steaming, comes to your table Cuba’s spell begins to settle into your body. The food touches your tongue and enters your mouth and like two strangers suddenly meeting on the street and without reason fall in love. The tongue exploring every last moment of morsel, the mouth slowly chewing, the throat finally swallowing and the heart’s only desire is for more.
Ask the chef what’s in your dish and he will say “bueno, lo que encontre hoy” (oh you know, the things I found today). This is how dinner at La Esperanza would be – a surprise for the senses – made from found ingredients, a warm atmosphere, and a kind host that has transformed his home into a banquet as perfect as a scene from a movie.
At the end of dinner do order a café con leche – no matter how much you might miss Starbucks. This steaming cup of dark goodness will make you forget and sink further into the many secrets of Cuba.
Thank you, Gilberto, for this tantalizing look into Cuba's "paladares." Now we all feel well and truly hungry!
(Photo credits: Paladar interior shots by Gilberto Lucero; food pictures courtesy of Derek Kolb)