Cuban Cuisine Conundrum

Miami is the home of the largest Cuban community outside Cuba and, to be expected, there is Cuban food everywhere. Good? That's another story.

Immigrant food has a predictable quality curve. At first, it's quite authentic because the immigrants bring the taste of home in their palate and traditional methods in their head. Currently, for example, there are great Mexican tacos to be had at food trucks all over the U.S. They taste, I can vouch though I'm not Mexican, like what you get on the street in Mexico, which to my standards, is pretty damn great.

However, walk into a Mexican restaurant, again anywhere in the U.S., the kind that serves margaritas and "combination plates" of, say, one enchilada, one taco, one tostada, rice, refriend beans, and the stuff is awful, usually thickly layered with nondescript cheese. Though quite often the kitchen help is Mexican -- just walk by and hear them talking -- the clientele is not, unlike the taco trucks. This is an immigrant food that crossed over a long time ago and is now made to American fast-food standards.

The same is true of Italian. Recently I walked past a restaurant with sidewalk tables and I could smell the distinct aroma of bad suburban Italian food. For several decades now, there have been upscale Italian restaurants that are a vast improvement, but that same, allegedly Northern Italian cuisine and now terribly degraded, has made its way to the suburban spots.

Cuban food has the same history. When Southwest Miami got settled by Cuban exiles who turned it into what we now call Little Havana, the food at the original eateries was terrific. And since Cuba itself was already suffering the ravages of socialism, like food rationing, Miami was the place to get what was becoming scarce in Cuba.

With time Miami restaurant food suffered a degradation. More processed products, more short-cuts, cheap ingredients. If Havana food was buckling under socialism, Miami's was cheapened by capitalism. And the Stateside portions grew and grew, perhaps as a reaction to scarcity back in the island, I'm not sure.

There is good Cuban restaurant food in Miami -- I am a devotee of Islas Canarias, a traditional spot not far from Little Havana. But walk into one of the many places that advertise, in English hoping to catch tourists and other crossover patrons, that they serve "Cuban Cuisine", and you will be disappointed. 

Doug Rodriguez, the father of nuevo cubano cuisine.

Doug Rodriguez, the father of nuevo cubano cuisine.

And there is nuevo cubano fare, a fusion of Cuban traditions with New American Cooking techniques pioneered by chef Douglas Rodriguez.

What is missing is something that can only come, but has not yet done so, from some Cuban-American foodie who is not interested in nuevo cubano but in viejo cubano -- I know I am a viejo cubano myself but I'm neither a chef nor an entrepreneur. Simply, traditional Cuban recipes made with the very best ingredients -- all the heirloom, heritage, organic, free-range, locavore, etc. stuff -- and the kind of fastidious attention that is usually paid to chef-driven cuisine.

In other words, Cuban food the way it used to be back in the day. Memories of underdevelopment. Would anyone patronize such a spot? You can book me a table everyday I'm in town. Or you can book your own and invite me to lunch. I'll be there.