Havana good time

You take a chance when you go to a restaurant in its first week. I trust that by the time you read this Vicente’s opening glitches will have been solved. The busboys will have been told to curb their enthusiasm and stop roaming the floor with big tubs under their arms, soliciting dirty plates. The waitstaff will know the menu, and they’ll be able to hear you, because management will have turned down the music volume during dining hours. It’ll be Cuban music on the sound system, instead of American pop.

There, got that off my chest.

Vicente’s has the ingredients of a winner, if it can inject more professionalism and — dare I, a gringa, say it? — more Cuba into its operation. Owner Vicente Vazquez says his mission is to give customers a real feel for the island, and it’s always a dilemma how much to bow to American customs (mandatory TV) and tastes, which can be, shall we say, demanding. My buddies who spend time in Cuba every year (avert your eyes, Department of Homeland Security) were disappointed that their waitress had never heard of a Cuba Libre and that their mojito was “not recognizable as a mojito.”

This may not matter, to most of us — the rum drink looks nicer with the sprig of yerba buena (wild mint) whole rather than crushed, which produces a swamp-water effect, visually. But surely no one would go to a Cuban restaurant to watch CNN or listen to smooth jazz.

Vazquez’s biggest success so far is his Cuban sandwiches; his quest for the authentic caused him to reject certain bakeries and to choose everyday squeeze-bottle yellow mustard over something fancier. He found the requisite special press (plancha) — “not the kind you’d use for panini,” he says. “There are no stripes in a Cuban sandwich.”

He’s buying 200 bags of pan de manteca a week, filling the split loaves with thin slices of deli ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickle and roast pork marinated in mojo (mo-ho) sauce. They’re smashed thin in the press and warmed, creating a crisp crust, and he’s selling as many as 100 a day, from a counter up front as well as in the dining room. There’s a vegetarian version, too, with avocado instead of meat.

Local Cuban-Americans are proud that he’s not serving tacos, and they’re giving him lots of advice. They want him to wear the traditional Cuban tails-out white shirt, the guayabera. They want him to keep the food traditional — “no peas in the ropa vieja” — and to add more desserts.

Dominos are the national pastime/obsession, so Tuesday night is “throwing bones” night, with dominos provided and ribs on the menu. Fridays feature salsa lessons and, most importantly, Vazquez is searching for a Cuban three-piece combo so the place can become the supper club-dance club that it already looks like. His role model is Ricky Ricardo; the parquet dance floor is begging to be used. It will be the music, I predict, that brings Vicente’s into its own.

As of now, there’s a flamenco show with a guitarist on Saturdays. For those who remember the dancers at the old Casa de España on Michigan Avenue, it’s the same family, with the tradition passed down from grandmother to granddaughters.

At dinner, familiar elements from the Caribbean are here — plantains, yuca, papas rellenas, thin beefsteak and lots of black beans and rice. Maria Vazquez, head chef and Vicente’s mom, puts green olives in everything, from the beans to the ropa vieja, a traditional shredded beef dish.

Bistec de palomilla is steak pounded very thin, marinated in mojo sauce (orange and lemon juice, garlic, onion, sugar), then lightly breaded and well-fried. It’s served with fried onions on top and a side of plantains. Like some American soul food, this and other Cuban-style steaks came about because their preparers couldn’t afford the fancier cuts. Cubans like all their steaks cooked medium-well and thin, but Vazquez will accommodate American tastes on the sirloin, cutting it thicker and letting diners pick their doneness level.

I preferred lecheon, simple moist roast pork, again with mojo sauce. Fried and breaded pork are on the menu too, as are lobster and shrimp, arroz con pollo, and several paellas. Appetizers include a Cuban pork tamal (this version of the more familiar Mexican tamale blends the meat in with the dough instead of encasing it), yuca, and ham-chicken croquettes. Yuca is a white root with little flavor of its own, but paired with mojo it becomes real scarf-able.

Quick plantain lesson: This banana cousin is so versatile it can be a side dish or dessert. While still semi-green, it’s sliced and fried and served with salt, tasting remarkably like a potato. It’s much better served with other food than eaten alone. Once it ripens near-black, it’s sweet. Although the menu advertises green plantains and sweet plantains as sides to different dishes, I got the green ones every time (again, this was the first week). If you’re looking for the sweet ones, make a point of asking.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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