That old Cuban <i> mojo</i> still works in the Southland.
A man dedicated to himself, always taking more than his share: five pork chops, two plates of rice and beans, a plate of yuca, all drowned in salt and lemon and garlic . . . . No wonder the glamorous pretty-boy singer was getting a big belly and jowls!
--Oscar Hijuelos, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”
When Armando Trull remembers his native Cuba, he remembers parties at Valladero Beach. Parties where a whole suckling pig was roasted over an open barbecue pit and cooked for hours to tender, juicy perfection. These days, Trull no longer digs barbecue pits but instead cooks his pigs inside a square oven made of metal, which, for some unknown reason, is called a caja china (Chinese box). He laughingly describes it as a “Cubanized barbecue.”
Jorge Novo, on the other hand, hasn’t given up on the digging. On special occasions, he cooks a pig in his backyard, passing the slow-roasting hours with friends who bask in the smell of garlic and sour oranges.
Regardless of where they cook their pigs, each time Trull and Novo take the trouble to make this festive--and complicated--dish, they are in their own way recreating the taste of Cuba: It is the taste of beef and pork and chicken smothered with onions, salt, olive oil, lemon or bitter oranges and garlic, garlic and more garlic. It is black beans and white rice, steamed yuca or cassava and fried sweet plantains that are decadent but, oh, so good. It is codfish and shrimp cooked with a sofrito of onions, tomatoes and bell peppers and a paella bursting with meats and shellfish that looks like a tropical version of surf ‘n’ turf.
An amalgam of Spain and the Caribbean, Cuban food, like Cuban music, is exuberant and full of flavor. Delicacy and subtlety need not apply as hearty, pungent portions warm the heart and soul.
It’s been more than 30 years since Castro took over the island, but Cubans in Los Angeles still cling to the memories of the foods they grew up with, and they strive to replicate what used to be put on the tables of homes now long gone.
For this reason, most Cuban restaurants in Southern California tend not to stray from standard, traditional dishes.
“Soup or salad, a meat dish--with rice and black beans--and dessert,” says Raul Arango, owner of El Caribbean Cafe in Downey. “And bread,” he adds. “Every meal is served with bread.”
If this is all sounds like the kind of meal your grandmother might dish out, it’s because Cuban food is downright homey and, for the most part, its techniques and ingredients are quite simple and down to earth.
But don’t let that fool you.
“It’s an elaborate cuisine, because everything has to have its point and we use many spices,” says Arango. “Not spicy spices, but things like pepper, tarragon, garlic and olive oil.”
It is these simple flavorings, blended in the right proportions, that give Cuban food its particularly highly seasoned taste. Riffle through any Cuban restaurant menu and you’ll find that most foods are either marinated in fragrant mojos made of garlic, lime, sour orange juice, oil and garlic or simmered with a tasty sofrito: a saute of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic and other flavorings.
And although many of the dishes use the same ingredients, their taste varies greatly from kitchen to kitchen.
“Garlic and onion are the basic ingredients of our cuisine, but everybody works with a recipe they got from their father or their grandmother, and everybody has a different palate,” says Nelsa Sousa de Vivar, co-owner of El Colmao, Los Angeles’ oldest surviving Cuban restaurant.
At El Colmao, in fact, all recipes come from Sousa de Vivar’s father, the late Eduardo Sousa, who founded the restaurant on March 17, 1969.
A Spaniard who moved to the island at age 15 and who was running his own successful restaurant when Castro took power, Sousa personified the definition of Cuban food as a blend of Spain and the Caribbean.
“In fact,” says Sousa de Vivar with a smile, “he named this restaurant El Colmao because when they took his place away from him in Cuba, he went to work as a cook in a place called El Colmao. And there he met three Spanish cooks that were in the same situation he was.” In Los Angeles, El Colmao was a hit, not just because it was one of a handful of Cuban restaurants at the time but also because of its owner’s exquisite taste.
To this day, people talk of El Colmao’s paella, which comes with crab, lobster, shrimp and clams; its chicken with sherry; its Galician soup with white beans, chorizo, ham and vegetables.
“And the boliche, [stuffed pot roast],” says Sousa de Vivar. “The way he made it, I have yet to eat any like that again.
“But everything is still done exactly the way he used to do it,” she hastens to add. “That’s why we’re still here, because he loved his restaurant, and I make sure things stay the same.”
In Downey, Raul Arango is just beginning what he hopes will be a long-standing tradition with his recently opened El Caribbean Cafe. Unlike Sousa, Arango, 60, seldom ventured into a kitchen in Cuba, working instead for the family’s import-export business while the hired help did the cooking.
But his flight to the U.S. after Castro came into power changed that.
“When I came to this country, I started working in restaurants,” he says. “My first job was in the Hotel America in Miami, washing dishes. The chef was French, and the food was international cuisine. We became friends and he made me his assistant.”
Today, after a string of jobs in the restaurant business, Arango is chef and owner of a restaurant where he serves not only traditional foods but also interesting concoctions of his own.
At El Caribbean you can eat what Arango calls “Cuba’s most popular dish”: a plate of roast pork with black beans, rice, yuca (cassava) and green or ripe plantain.
You can also eat the traditional moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), which is black beans and rice cooked together.
But if you want to eat something unique to El Caribbean, you might want to try the the lobster with chocolate, served with a chocolate-wine sauce (not as odd as it might seem, if you consider the Mexican mole sauce made with chocolate and spices), or the seafood roll, both inventions of Arango’s.
However, he concedes, the most popular dishes are the tropical chicken, marinated in a mojo of sour oranges, oil and garlic. And, among the Cubans, the breaded steak (Arango’s favorite dish), roast pork and the famous ropa vieja, shredded beef in a Creole sauce (its name literally means “old clothes”).
“We are a very carnivorous people,” Arango says. “We’re an island, but we love to eat meat.”
Many Southland Cuban restaurant owners, like Arango, admit that in health-conscious Los Angeles, the most popular dish on the menu is roasted chicken, marinated in mojo and served, of course, with black beans (also healthy) and rice.
It’s the roast chicken that is largely responsible for the tremendous popularity of Versailles, arguably the most successful Cuban restaurant in Los Angeles.
“Well, I have to say, roast chicken is my favorite dish,” says owner Orlando Garcia, 60. “If there are seven days in the week, I eat chicken 14 times,” he says, laughing.
In fact, Garcia says modestly, his chicken is unequaled anywhere in the world.
“Better or worse, maybe,” he says. “But equal to mine? No. It all has to do in how much time I put into it. Food is like love. The more you put into it, the better it gets.”
A native of a small town called Guines, near Havana, Garcia learned to cook as a child, out of necessity.
“I was a very poor child,” he says. “We were eight children, and I used to work for someone who cooked in the countryside.”
By the time he left Cuba in 1967, Garcia was an accomplished cook. He was also married with five children and one on the way and, like most Cubans, he left the island with nothing.
“I sold ice cream in East L.A. A lot of ice cream, until I had enough money--$9,000--to open my own restaurant.”
Today Garcia owns three Versailles restaurants, which he runs with the help of his children.
“We sell everything: from tongue to fried plantain, roast pork, rabo encendido (stewed oxtail), arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), halibut in garlic sauce. We sell three to four thousand pounds of halibut each week.”
But his bestseller is the chicken.
It’s a similar story at El Floridita Restaurant in Hollywood. “Our roast chicken is very, very popular,” says owner Armando Castro. “And Americans, for some reason, love Cuban black beans.” At El Floridita you can eat succulent roast pork, great sirloin steak and tasty fried rice with pork, chicken and shrimp, a testament to the Chinese immigration to Cuba. But Castro has also geared the menu toward vegetarians and other light eaters.
“Take black beans, for example,” he says. “In some places they cook them with pork and bacon. But we get almost the same flavor here using no animal fats, because we serve the beans as part of a vegetarian dish. We use vegetable, soy bean and olive oil, and that’s what’s different from the old country. It will never be exactly the same, but we try to achieve the same Creole flavor.”
Castro, it turns out, is not from the “old country.” An orphan from Nicaragua, he arrived in Miami in 1958, when he was 15, and was adopted by a Cuban who hired him to work in his print shop.
“He introduced me to Cuban food and he taught me to eat well and to have a good sense of taste,” he says. “He also took me to Cuba, and since I was a fanatic reader of Hemingway, he took me to El Floridita in Old Havana.” El Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite Havana restaurant and hangout, was the inspiration behind Castro’s restaurant in more ways than one. L.A.'s El Floridita, in the heart of Hollywood, serves not only food but also great live Cuban music, and its Monday and Thursday night jam sessions have become a tradition among the city’s musicians.
Castro is not the only non-Cuban who has thrived through his love of Cuban food. On the other side of town, in Bell, Mexico-born Ana Canto helms El Chori Restaurant to raves from critics and diners. Canto, who used to be married to a Cuban, hails from Yucatan, a part of Mexico where, in her words, “they serve Caribbean food.”
Cuban food, after all, is similar to Colombian, Puerto Rican and even Central American food but has little in common with spicy Mexican food.
At El Chori, Canto isn’t hung up on Mexican taste anyway. Instead, because she is married to a Spaniard, she has added Spanish dishes to the menu. And, of course, there’s always traditional Cuban food, which each day seems to attract more eaters.
“Truly,” says Canto, “in the past five years Cuban food has become enormously popular.”
On the Westside, the best-known testament to that popularity is Versailles Restaurant. But those who are really into Cuban food know that the best beans on the Westside are found in a hole in the wall in Culver City called El Rincon Criollo.
“Our black beans have a very Creole flavor,” says owner Rene Rodriguez. “We make them with a sofrito of finely chopped onions, garlic, cumin, chopped tomatoes, and when it’s ready, we add a touch of Spanish oil.” Rodriguez, an Evangelical pastor, bought El Rincon in 1982, after having been a customer for years. And even though the place has its ups and downs, it’s turned out to be a wonderful long-term investment.
“Out of selling beans, rice and meat, I’ve paid for my children’s education,” he says proudly. “And they love Cuban food,” he adds with a laugh.
That was, after all, the food they grew up with here in Los Angeles. And even when there were few Cuban restaurants in the area, says Rodriguez, you could always find the food and the ingredients.
“Plantain; yuca; boniato, which is like a sweet potato; malanga, which is a root that is cooked and pureed or eaten in pieces.” In Spectors market in Burbank, owner Jose Lefron gives a tour of the aisles, pointing out the ingredients of Cuban cuisine.
“I was raised with malanga,” he says, his eyes brightening as he holds the ugly root in his hand. “If you ever suffer from stomach problems, the cure is malanga puree. And it’s delicious,” he adds.
“The boniato,” he continues, “you can eat fried or cooked with garlic, same as the yuca.”
The tour continues: fresh meats, chicken and fish, wrapped packages of tasajo--dried beef that has to be desalted--aisles filled with half a dozen brands of strong Cuban coffee, cans of guava and oranges in syrup, boxes of guava paste, wrapped milk and coconut desserts, canned black beans, dried black beans and bags and bags of round Cuban crackers.
At the end of the tour, Lefron proudly shows me pictures of the family home he left behind in Cuba in 1969.
“We had wonderful family dinners,” he remembers. “We were usually around 40 people, because my grandmother had 13 children. My aunt Hortensia would cook. She was a wonderful cook.”
Lefron pauses and thinks a bit.
“But what I most remember,” he says, “was Christmas Eve in Camaguey. We would take a whole pig, marinate it in sour oranges, garlic and cumin and roast it over the coals. . . .”
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A Few Good Cuban Restaurants
The following list includes restaurants discussed in the accompanying article, as well as those reviewed in past Counter Intelligence columns by Jonathan Gold.
* El Caribbean Cafe, 7840 E. Florence Ave., Downey, (310) 928-9225.
* El Chori, 5147 Gage Ave., Bell, (213) 773-3011.
* El Colmao, 2328 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-6131.
* El Floridita, 1253 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (213) 871-8612.
* El Rincon Criollo, 4361 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, (310) 397-9295.
* Las Carretas, 226 E. Alameda St., Burbank, (818) 848-1915.
* Miami Restaurant, 4031 E. Florence Ave., Bell, (213) 560-0672.
* Versailles, 10319 Venice Blvd., W. Los Angeles, (310) 558-3168; 1415 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 289-0392; 17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 906-0756.