Food & Drink 

Vive Cuba libre: the other side of Cuban cooking

This much-maligned cuisine deserves another look — and another helping

Hola! say our amigos since we returned from Havana. After that, one of the first questions is, did you find any good food?

For decades Cuba has been saddled with a reputation for mediocre-to-lousy food, at least as far as tourists were concerned. Wandering Whistlerites, who’d book a cheap package to Varadero as far back as the early 1980s when this beach idyll was just beginning to catch on as an easy, sun-splashed getaway, would invariably come back complaining of heavy cottonseed oil on everything, rubbery chicken everywhere and nary a piquant spice or fresh guava in sight.

The nasty U.S. embargo on Cuba, in place since 1960, which means bare shelves, rationing and long line-ups in food stores, coupled with the communist touch of indifferent state-run restaurants and attempts to control tourists coalesced to over-shadow the rich and righteous culinary legacy of Cuba.

Oigame , I mean, here’s the second biggest island in the Caribbean, with a lineage from Spain and Africa. This should be a food paradise and it is – at least it is if you work at it just a little. That means if you go on an all-inclusive, start by getting past the buffet troughs that attracts the 300-pounders like flies.

Once you get out the door of your self-contained resort, which is where most Canadians park their pale butts, walk east or west along the narrow isthmus to the centre of Varadero. That’s where you’ll find small, charming Moorish-style hotels, where Habaneros have been staying for decades, and small local restaurants that can knock your sandals off.

Barracuda’s, a diving school-cum-restaurant with a spotless eatery right on the beach under a palapa-style roof is pretty hard to miss. Here, el jefe – the chef, not the Chief, a gourmand nonetheless but one unlikely to cook for the likes of you and I – dishes up a perfectly cooked whole grilled snapper for about $12, complet , and a ceviche appetizer swimming in lime that’s so delicious and generous it could satisfy as an entrée ($4).

Down the road on Avenida Primera, an unpretentious local hangout attracts the owners’ hip teenagers and their friends, who fall into sweet song when the equivalent of Guitar Doug makes the rounds. The house specialty: lomo ahumado , delicious loin of pork smoked to perfection, tender inside and crispy outside. Look for a line of basic tables filled with noisy Cuban teenagers and, the big tip-off, an old 50-gallon drum cut in half and tuned into smoker.

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