Pacific Northwest | September 28, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 28, 2003seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
Coming home
Trolling for tchotchkes
Havana hideaway
A grand adventure
Slowing down to catch up
PLANT LIFE
TASTE
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARC RAMIREZ Travel 2003

HAVANA HIDEAWAY Around a corner, up the stairs, to a table of deliciously forbidden pleasures

 Photo
In a sunlit maze of hanging plants, warbling birds and clay-walled sitting rooms, guests of this apartment-rooftop eatery discreetly dine on everything from orange-pumpkin fritters and baked banana to peppered lobster and mango-and-corn casserole.
TO AVOID ATTENTION, I've asked the taxi driver to drop me off on a busy corner a half-block away. A short walk and I'm at a nondescript apartment complex, several stories high, more modern than the fabled façades of romanticized Havana. Tall, leafy plants swish in the gentle breeze under a cloudless sky. I could be in Southern California.

I head for the entrance. Two chatting women pass by across the street. The doorway is a gaping dark hole beyond which no light fixtures appear to work; that much reminds me where I am.

This area is Vedado, the youthful epicenter of Cuba's capital city, an eight-minute drive along the oceanfront from the more publicized avenues of Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. Not that it's without its attractions — a trendy jazz club is not far away; farther up is the popular ice-cream parlor featured in the Cuban film "Strawberry and Chocolate." In another direction, the University of Havana.

I'm hungry, and a little anxious. My heart races with the excitement of doing something forbidden.

I'm not supposed to be here.

Unless you're visiting family or have approved business, it's still illegal to vacation in Cuba — one of the lingering trade restrictions the United States imposed after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and subsequent socialist reforms.

My official reason for coming was work: I was doing a story on how hip-hop music and culture had become tools of social commentary for Cuba's youth and Afro-Cuban population. But a guy still had to eat.

Already on my visit, I'd had doughy, cardboard pizza sold fresh from rusty ovens in doorways for about a quarter a slice; I'd relaxed with ham sandwiches and beer in an Internet café. This time around, I was looking for more of an experience.

One of the changes Castro made after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's former sugar daddy, was to let licensed citizens earn lucrative tourist dollars by operating guest homes and restaurants. Highly taxed, of course.

Just the same, the eateries, or paladares, literally served up a taste of home cooking and Cuban culture. In historic, cobblestoned Trinidad, I'd had an $8 lobster dinner; in the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos, Leonor Martinez put on a $6 feast highlighted by something she called Pollo la Cola — chicken with white raisins, olives, garlic and her special ingredient, Coca-Cola.

Here in Havana, the couple who ran my guest house apologized for a late dinner by letting the rum flow beforehand as subtitled martial-arts videos played on a VCR. When I was finally called to the table, there were heaping plates of fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes and cucumber, black beans and rice, and a main course of succulent pork.

But there were others — unlicensed citizens who, tired of surviving on the meager rations they received every month, wanted to cash in on the U.S. dollars that purchased goods in stores better stocked than Cuban peso markets.

An acquaintance had told me about an underground paladar on a Havana rooftop. By Cuban standards, it was pricey, she said, but memorable. And because it operated illegally, risking exorbitant fines, it depended on word of mouth.

That's what had brought me to this Vedado apartment building. A pair of British travelers had planned to join me but flaked out at the last minute.

At the top of the stairs, I knock on a door with a small, curtained window. After several minutes, a cocoa-skinned woman in her 20s lets me in. I'll call her Celia.

Inside, it's a tropical paradise, a maze of hanging plants and clay-walled sitting rooms with low-slung ceilings and birdcages, some built into the walls themselves and visible from either side.

Celia seats me in a room where sunlight peeks through vines hanging overhead. The walls are a tapestry of objets d'art — wooden masks, ceramic plates, wicker reptiles, a baby girl's shoe.

The 40-something proprietor comes out to greet me, then vanishes into the kitchen. There is no menu. Instead, Celia appears with bowls of cheese, fried plantains, fruit-juicy guayaba rolled in ham and topped with coconut, pumpkin-orange fritters, a baked banana boat laden with apple and cinnamon. These are just the appetizers.

I savor it all amid the sounds of warbling, fluttering birds and soft Cuban jazz.

Then, the main dishes — in one bowl, okra with diced ham; in another, shredded, peppered lobster. There's a corn-and-mango casserole, and the most scrumptious of all — a half-coconut-sized bowl heaped with garlic shrimp, sliced cucumber and avocado alongside.

I'm not supposed to be here. No one is. Everything is delicious. It's the thrill of snaring the bootleg concert tape, the buried treasure, that heightens the senses as I down the shrimp and get only halfway through the other dishes. The bill will be close to $30, twice a typical Cuban's monthly salary, but I'm like a kid who's gotten a hand into the world's most precious cookie jar.

I can barely believe it when Celia appears and tells me: "You have two choices for dessert."

I was already more than satisfied, but somehow this seemed a fitting, even necessary, end to a meal of behind-the-curtain pleasure. How could I pass it up?

Coconut flan, I say. Topped with a sliver of guayaba, tipsy with rum, it's an appropriately luscious finale.

Marc Ramirez is a Seattle Times staff writer.

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