By Brandee Sanders, Foodable Contributor
For an island barely 90 miles south of the Florida Keys and measuring only 48,800 square miles, Cuba’s cultural influence can still be felt across the United States.
Walk up to any New Yorker and say the word “Cuba” and typically the first three things that come to mind are cigars, old cars and Fidel Castro. While this is true with most Americans, there is also a devoted group of people that revere true Cuban heritage and food with a fiery passion. And with the recent changes with Cuban travel and potential future changes in our trade embargo, this once nostalgic and seemingly far away locale has become a buzz-worthy and upcoming trend in not only travel and lifestyle circles, but food as well.
Diverse, Colorful and Delicious Cuban Cuisine
A spicy blend of Spanish, African, Caribbean and Native American cuisines, Cuban meals are typically family-focused and less pretentious than some of the more traditional sects. Where French and fellow highbrow food is a measured, precise and specific art, Cuban food is an inclusive, rustic, and often familial affair.
Here in New York City, there is a wide variety of Cuban food hotspots, from local empanadas (delicious turnover pockets filled with chicken) found on street corners off of 14th Street Union Square, to Midtown boutique restaurants specializing in hand-rolled cigars and live Havana-inspired music experiences, each with their own fantastic offerings to locals and tourists alike.
Cuban Vibes in Queens
Taking a walk through the up-and-coming, trendy neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, we find Sabor De Cuba, a family owned restaurant specializing in tapas and traditional meals like Ropa Vieja. Ropa Vieja, which translates loosely to "old clothes" in Spanish, describes the shredded pile of vegetables and meat that comprise this hearty Cuban favorite. Tapas, a meal consisting of multiple small plates, hits a home run with locals on weeknights, while Sabor’s brunch menu pleases the hip weekend crowd. With plates like Arepas Guevaera, a saucy Cuban flip on Eggs Benedict served with hot cornbread and sofrito sauce alongside Desayuna Gajuira, a hot Yuca Chorizo topped with hash browns and poached eggs, it’s easy to see why this spot brings the locals out.
Old World Cuba in New World Astoria
While finishing off the meal with a delicious glass of batido under boxes of Cohibas nailed to the rustic stone and wood walls, we took a few minutes to chat with locals about the recent changes in Cuban travel. While most were excited and agreed it’s encouraging to see open relations with the United States and Cuba becoming a reality, it’s also important to recognize that we don’t rush in and turn it into a typical foodie tourist trap.
“It’d be painful to see old Cuba become a place of typical hotels and strip malls, or to push out locals with existing mom and pop eateries,” said one older man who declined to identify himself.
Local Astoria native Jarred Andrews says, “Restaurants like Sabor de Cuba and even Guantanamera in Manhattan let you basically take a trip to Cuba without the hassle. The food, the flavors, the way the family owners pay attention to everyone, it’s definitely more hands on and personal. It’s an immersive experience hard to find in other cuisines and we embrace that cultural journey on a local level.” When asked what drew him here initially, he says, “We’ve loved Cuban food ever since we travelled to Miami and ate at Lario’s Cuban Café, which is owned by Gloria Estefan. Explosive flavors, really, just a refreshing type of food. So as soon as we got back to New York City, I knew I had to find Cuban cuisine, and was thrilled to find spots like Sabor and Guantanamera so close. It’s a foodie dream!”
Little Havana in Big Manhattan
On the good word of those local Astorians, we head off to investigate Guantanamera, managed by owner Mario Zarate. A vet of the restaurant industry in New York City, he brings on more than 30+ years of experience and is a noted recipient of the Honorary Best Latino Businessman Award of 2009.
Boasting the “authentic Cuban experience,” this New York City hotspot features specialty rums and live music, as well as an impressive menu of favorites, including Arroz Con Pollo Criollo and Sandwich Cubano.
The most Instagram-worthy piece is Corvina Al Estilo Hemingway, a light pan seared white sea bass served on a dense bed of lima beans and clams over a red sauce. The bustle here is constant, and the crowd appears to be a crew of diehard loyalists, spiritedly chatting over their meals, almost of which is greeted with wide smiles and eager hands. Many of the men here share their passion of the restaurant’s complimentary Cuban-inspired cigars, which carry the words “totalmente a mano,” translating to “totally by hand.” According to staff here, including professional Cigar aficionado and Torcedore aka pro cigar roller, Juan De La Cruz, they’re also “y con mucho Amor,” which means “made with lots of love.”
In the food and restaurant industry, where most are often working to find the next big thing, it seems many of the Cuban restaurants in New York City opt for doing the opposite and stay the course with traditional service and family-run ventures. Standing under the full moon on the sidewalks of New York City, enjoying the smell of cigar smoke lingering in the air and mingling with fresh Yuquita Frita, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine, if only for a moment, you’re standing in your own personal slice of Havana right here in Manhattan.