Strolling through Old Havana, the sounds of various rumba bands wafting through the warm evening air, our group of four wanderers was approached by two women, inquiring something that my C-minus in Spanish 30 years ago left me unable to decipher. Were they beggars, street-walkers, peddlers, muggers? What? Que?
One amongst us who spoke Spanish disappeared down a darkened street with them, returning to inform the rest of us that we'd been invited to their home for dinner. Que? Porque no?
When we arrived at their humble abode, two tables of similarly-recruited dinner guests were already seated, enjoying mojitos, those dangerously appealing drinks that are sort of Cuban mint juleps, made with rum rather than bourbon. I graciously enjoyed three in an effort not to insult our hosts. The first was dedicated to them, the next two to Cuba and the revolution, the fourth to who knows what. I ordered a great shrimp dish (with black beans and rice and fried plantain chips) and prayed not to wind up in Havana General for the duration of my visit.
A conglomeration of generations and branches of the same family greeted us, cooked, mixed drinks and served food that was better than any we'd found in commercial restaurants. This was a commercial venture, too, as it turned out, but the bill at this private home was less than what you'd spend for a hostess gift for dinner at a friend's house back in the States-- about thirteen American dollars per person-- and far less than Havana's true commercial restaurants.
Families throughout Havana do this. These home restaurants are called paladars, and as this family explained them, they are licensed by the government, may not seat more than 12 patrons at one time, and may not employ people outside their own families.
They are not easy to find. None seems to have signs and they don't really stand out at all in their residential neighborhoods. Locals took us to another one, where we dined al fresco on ropa vieja-- shredded beef (with black beans and rice and plantain chips) on someone's back yard patio. Cubans took us to another one that served melt-in-your-mouth red snapper (with black beans and rice and plantain chips) in a kind of front yard breezeway with colorful caged birds all around.
At a fourth, we were dropped at a once grand, now totally dilapidated four-story home, where we walked in, and mounted a crumbling majestic marble staircase, stopping to catch our breaths at each landing and chiding our guide for leading us on a wild goose chase. The first three floors were uninhabited, but when we knocked at a door on the fourth floor, it was opened to reveal a tiny restaurant that served a delicious fish, called "cherna", sprinkled with fried garlic (with black beans and rice and plantain chips).
And lots of mojitos. Thlast of them was dedicated, I think, to paladars. Or damned well should have been. They were one of the most delightful discoveries of a week chock-full them: discoveries and mojitos.
By Bill Geist
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