I think I’ve figured out why the US boycotted Cuba for so long. I am now convinced it wasn’t about politics or missiles or even revenge for their beloved Lucy, whose quest for fame was forever thwarted by a cranky Cuban hubby named Ricky. No, as sure as Ethel was a natural blond, this whole little tiff has been about just one thing: food envy.
Americans do have their own national cuisine, of course (ably represented by greasy burgers and deep-fried sticks of butter), and Mexico’s definitely made an impact on the national palette, but anyone who’s tasted authentic Cuban food will surely never favour the chimichanga again.
“I think that some people think of Cuban food as the same as Mexican,” says Victor Coelho, co-owner of La Cubana, a marvellous new eatery on Roncesvalles. “There certainly are some similarities and some interesting spices that we use, but it’s not always so hot. It’s very, very savoury.”
It also relies a little less on the deep fryer, featuring tender cooked meat and seafood that has plenty of zing without sloughing off several layers of your tongue. You’ll still want to order a nice refreshing mojito, but more as a thirst quencher than urgent fire extinguisher.
It’s pouring rain the night I visit La Cubana, but the place is jumping with activity. Nearly every table is taken in this cool space with a retro diner feel, and there’s a nice buzz of conversation that adds to the homey feel without being intrusive. The walls are a pale-green tile, with white-and-red menu boards that give a Cuban feel without breaking out the maracas. Tasteful, but with definite personality.
Our server is, well, drop-dead gorgeous, all twinkling eyes and nicely trimmed beard. But that didn’t affect my honest and straightforward evaluation of the food. Much.
In fact, nearly everything I and my dining companion sampled was startlingly good. I’d never tried authentic Cuban food before, expecting it to be sort of an up-market Taco Bell, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a whole new flavour of Spanish cuisine.
We started with cod croquetas, little fried wonders that may have ruined crab cakes for me. Much more flavourful and filling than their shellfish cousins, these little babies could easily make a meal in and of themselves if you toss in a salad. The tostones rellenos/beef picadillo makes a nice follow-up: spicy but not painful, with a fruity undertone that is strangely refreshing. We follow these up with the highly recommended habanero-glazed fried squid, incredibly tender and crackling with a light breaded coating.
A little less successful are the yuca fritas, which are dense and kind of hard to eat — think potato wedges with the gravity of Jupiter and you’ll get an inkling of how these hit your stomach. Nice lemony sauce, though.
A return visit for lunch is just as satisfying. The black bean soup is rich and full-bodied, and the pressed Cubano sandwich is to die for. I could easily eat one of these every week, the tender pork spiced so perfectly and housed in bread baked fresh on the premises.
The desserts are simple but decadent. We plump for the key lime pie and the chocolate mousse, both served in little chilled jars. The addition of Cubana’s signature doughnuts, served still sizzling, is perfect when dipped into the fluffy mousse.
La Cubana’s menu may feel like it’s on the small side, but it offers such a variety of tastes and textures that nothing seems missing. Each element complements the others beautifully, with no flavour clashes. This carefully planned selection isn’t surprising, given that Coelho and his wife, chef Corrina Mozo, already own the successful Delux, a tasty French bistro over at 92 Ossington Ave.
“Corinna has been working on this for many years, since she worked as a chef in Massachusetts,” Coelho says. “That was the first place she incorporated her Cuban heritage into designing a menu. Then we had the Cuban brunch at Delux on weekends, before deciding to open up here. It’s something that’s really close to her, offering the food from her own heritage to others.”