The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant. More

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Braving the Crowds at Porto’s

When it comes to indulging my food wanderlust, I’m an opportunist. A client meeting in Mid-Wilshire, for example, might be a mere pretext for a stop at Harvey’s Guss for a dry-aged rib steak; a trip into the valley to visit my aging father also a chance to browse the aisles at the Vallarta market or pop into India Sweets & Spices.

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So it was a recent Saturday morning, taking my son across the city to Glendale for the 40th anniversary celebration of his tae kwon do academy. What else was there in Glendale that might merit a visit?  I wondered. More

Dinner in Havana

A smoky bar and stiff rum drink. A slow lusty mambo playing in the background. Late afternoon light spilling in from the open door, people outside bustling past or standing in the shadows of arched doorways speaking Spanish. A dark woman in a white cotton dress eying you from a corner table. (Or handsome dark-eyed man in a fedora, if you’re a gal.) Suddenly, you realize you’re a little drunk. And hungry.

Papas rellenas, costillitas, beans and rice and a mojito.

If you were to go out for dinner in Havana, you would likely wind up in a private home at a “paladar” — restaurants people have set up in their living rooms or on their balconies, serving homecooked food. Your choices are that or a government-run restaurant. (Imagine eating at a government-run restaurant in a U.S. DMV or passport office… you’d be dreaming of Olive Garden or Sizzler…)

I’ve never been to Havana. I’ve contemplated sneaking in… but figured instead I’d just wait and go with everyone else, once the embargo has been lifted and the Disneyfication has begun. But sometimes I put on Buena Vista Social Club, light a Cuban cigar I smuggled in from Mexico, make some firm mojitos and cook up some Cuban food. Costillitas, in particular — Cuban-style ribs on the grill. These may be the best ribs on earth. Better than St. Louis, better than Tuscan arrosto misto, better even than Hawaiian… (I’ll teach you how to make ALL these in due time, my friends…) And papas rellenas, potato puffs stuffed with spiced beef — a dish I first had at a Cuban restaurant in Madrid. And of course, rice and beans.

The following recipes will serve 4-6, making for a nice Havana-style dinner party in your own paladar. Mojitos recipe included!

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Costillitas

1 rack baby back ribs
1 cup orange juice
juice of one lime
6 large garlic cloves, mashed
1 onion, sliced lengthwise into slivers
1 tsp oregano
salt & pepper

Remove the sheathy membrane from the back side of the ribs (to do this, slip a flat-head screwdriver between the membrane and the bone, and peel off). Cut the rack into segments of 3-4 ribs each, and salt the ribs well for about an hour.

To “mash” the garlic, you can use a mortar and pestle. Or you can grate the cloves on the fine grate of a cheese grater. Combine the garlic with the juices, the onion and the oregano in a bowl. Set aside 1/3 of the juice mixture for later. Place ribs in a large roasting dish and marinate with citrus/garlic mixture for an hour at room temperature. (Or several hours in the fridge.)

Get your grill good and hot. Then cook the ribs, turning frequently and basting with marinade, for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve over rice, drizzled with the reserved citrus/garlic mixture and onions, with Cuban-style beans. (Recipe below)

Papas Rellenas

1 large russet potato, peeled and quartered
1/2 lb ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp chopped green olives
2 eggs
panko bread crumbs
vegetable oil for frying
salt & pepper

Boil potatoes until cooked. Cool and mash in a bowl. Separate egg whites from yolks. Add yolks to potatoes with salt and pepper, and blend thoroughly. Meanwhile, cook ground beef in pan with chopped onion, tomato paste, olives and salt and pepper until browned. Remove from heat and cool.

Whip egg whites in a bowl until frothy. To make papas rellenas, scoop a large tablespoon of potato mixture into the palm of your hands and flatten. Place a teaspoon of the beef mixture into the middle of the potato, then close potato around it to form a ball. Dip the ball in the whipped egg whites, and then in panko to coat thoroughly. In a saucepan, heat about 1/4 inch of oil over medium-high heat. Cook the papas rellenas, a few at a time, turning frequently until browned on all sides. Remove and keep warm until all are cooked and ready to serve.

Cuban-style black beans

1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1 chopped onion
1 chopped green pepper
salt & pepper

Cover beans in 3 cups of water. Add bay leaf, chopped onion and green pepper. Bring to a boil in a pot, then lower heat and cover. Cook for 2 hours or until tender, adding more water as necessary (beans should be saucy). Once beans are tender, add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Mojitos
for each drink:

Juice of two limes
2 heaping tablespoons sugar
4 or 5 mint leaves
1 ounce light rum
fizzy water

Combine lime juice and sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Place in a tall glass with mint leaves, and toggle with a chopstick or back of a knife, bruising leaves to release oils. Add rum and ice, then fill drink with fizzy water. Serve with a stirrer.