It turns out that eating, like most transporting pleasures, is really about communion. And if Cuban food lacks the spice and variety of other cuisines, in Miami its bland stolidity has become the perfect foil to the crazy circus of exile.
Nena’s—despite its lack of ambiance—has long been the place for the power brokers. Enriqueta’s—where I shared a wonderful paella with Cuban sculptor Tony Lopez—is a favorite with downtown artists. A group from the business association known as the Kendall Networkers meets at one of the many branches of the popular La Carreta restaurants. Puerto Sagua, in addition to its excellent roast chicken, displays the whimsical creations of the famed Scull sisters.
I took The Miami Herald’s new executive editor there earlier this year. Everything was going well until I tried to order tostones with my bacalao. The waitress scolded me immediately: The dish already came with maduros and I would get too full with plantains before I could enjoy the fish.
The number and variety of Cuban restaurants in Miami is proof that other countries’ troubles are the stuff of American gastronomic dreams. When people are forced to leave their homes because of hunger or strife, the first thing they do in the new world is open a restaurant and start cooking. The impulse is born not just of simple economic need but also of the desire to transform raw ingredients into something nourishing and familiar. It’s a bold and optimistic act: to believe that the memory of deprivation and disappointment can be salved with perfect arroz con pollo.
In the early years of the Cuban diaspora, Miami Cuban food hewed fairly close to tradition. Everyone was in a holding pattern then—better not to stray from the details lest you forget them. The years stretched into decades and not much changed. Then, little by little, younger chefs began experimenting with history. Douglas Rodriguez recklessly crusted fish with crushed plantains and dared to suggest that Cuban food could be the stuff of fine dining. And time gave people like Bernie Matz, of Cuban-Jewish descent, permission to bring their private cultural histories into the dining room.
The dishes Matz creates for the Café at Books & Books can only be described as Traditional Miami: Black-bean hummus with bagel chips, grilled skirt steak in Bernie’s sprightlier mojo, and a seafood salad that, instead of asking you to forget about home, begs you to consider the delights of your new one.
As the culinary revolution went, so did the political one. By the time Neli Santamarina opened Tinta y Café, near downtown Miami, the next generation was primed for new ideas. Santamarina serves them alongside updated standbys like La Noche Entera, a crisper, heartier American version of the classic Cuban medianoche sandwich. Her other traditional sandwiches have also undergone semantic revolutions: Mom’s pork sandwich became El Guajiro; the Elena Ruz was rechristened La Francesita.
Once a month, Santamarina opens up the café to a “tertulia,” a gabfest where Cubans of all political persuasions are invited to hash it out. It can be a thankless proposition in Miami. But Santamarina can’t help herself: “Politics is part of the digestion process,” she said.
It’s tempting to describe Tinta y Café as the anti-Versailles. But that’s unfair to both restaurants, which have very different philosophies. Where Versailles is brash and huge, Tinta y Café is small and subdued, a Left Bank understatement to Versailles’s Champs-Élysées excess. But the young Tinta has already garnered the kind of attention Versailles worked for years to cultivate: The local newsweekly pronounced its croquetas “The Best of Miami.” And when PBS needed to interview “moderate” anti-Castroites when the ailing Cuban leader delegated day-to-day political oversight to his brother, Raúl, last year, crews stopped by the little café on Calle Ocho.
Now, 48 years into our endless discontent, the city of Miami has Cuban restaurants for every taste and persuasion. But ask a young Cuban where she goes for the best food, and she’ll say “to Mom’s,” like any good immigrant’s child. My mother’s picadillo is still the standard by which I judge all others. When I complain that a recipe is too bland or missing something, it’s because it’s everything the one I grew up eating wasn’t.
I was raised in a home where the women cooked every day, if not with constant pleasure at least with joy. There was little experimenting. And, except for the occasional spaghetti with meatballs, there was rarely a deviation from the Cuban script. Boliche, picadillo, arroz con pollo. Experimentation was left to me and my sister, Rose: Today, we’ll make picadillo and add pine nuts—for crunch—and chopped beets, instead of potatoes, for sweetness. Our tongue-in-cheek tamal “en cazuela” (tamale pie) is the hit of our parties with the cousins.
The only thing no one ever dared to mess with was the pig. Every year, the family gathered in the backyard to roast a whole pig in a pit. Between the smell and the smoke, it makes for my own 35-pound madeleine.
The pig would be set out to marinate the night before. The men would split it and pour the sour orange and garlic into the rib cavities. The next day, the roasting would be an all-day affair, the way it had been in Cuba.
Memory, not surprisingly, was the key ingredient. My father left Varadero for the States at the age of 20. He had yet to meet my mother. And his siblings and parents were stuck in Cuba. After a brief stay in Miami, he moved out to California. Those first years were bereft of both comfort and familiarity. A sad, not uncommon situation, and one that called for a good old-fashioned pig roast.