A taste of Havana in Hogtown



Victor Coelho and Corinna Mozo; La Cubana’s retro interior

Last year I visited Cuba for the first time. Before I went, everyone I knew told me the same thing: “Cuba is great, but the food is terrible.” And they were right, at first. At my resort, I encountered soggy hamburgers, inedible prawns and college dormitory-worthy pasta. So I got off the resort. I rode a moped to Havana.

On the way, I saw a guy with a food cart. He had an entire roasted pig, and he was making sandwiches out of it with white bread and salt. It was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.

The lesson here is that there will always be good food wherever pigs exist, even in communist Cuba, where good ingredients are not always available. But I’m not going to blame anyone in this city for misunderstanding Cuban cuisine, because Torontonians are just starting to become acquainted with it.

Cuban food is a fascinating confluence of cultures. As expected, there are huge Spanish and Caribbean influences, but there are also flavours from Mexico, Africa and even China (Cuba has historically been a major trading hub).

Of course, Cuban food has been available in Toronto for years now. But it’s recently been brought into the spotlight thanks to Delux, a mostly French restaurant on Ossington that began serving a Cuban-inspired lunch a few years ago. It’s a fine meal, with items such as empanadas, conch fritters and fried plantains. Not everything is great: the Cuban coffee is possibly worse than anything that Starbucks has on offer, but it doesn’t mar the experience too much because star of the show, by a long shot, is the pressed Cubano sandwich ($10).

This thing is awesome. It’s a hot, crispy, cheesy piece of beauty, not unlike a French croque monsieur, filled with two types of pork: black forest ham and slow-roasted pork shoulder (brined overnight and sauced with molasses, brown sugar and mustard before it goes into the oven). There’s also Gruyere cheese, chipotle mayo and Pommery mustard, and it’s all housed within a round of house-baked bread.

I’m convinced that this sandwich is the main reason that Delux’s Cuban lunch took off. Corinna Mozo, who co-owns Delux with Victor Coelho, invented the sandwich back in the ’90s when she was chef de cuisine at Chez Henri in Boston. Mozo grew up eating her Cuban father’s cooking, which is how she got into Cuban cuisine in the first place.

She and Coelho certainly realized they were on to something good with their Cuban lunch, because in the fall they opened La Cubana on Roncesvalles, a ’50s-style diner dedicated to Cuban food (and yes, the pressed Cubano sandwich makes a glorious appearance on the menu). The restaurant is modeled after a diner that Mozo’s grandfather owned in Camagüey, Cuba’s third largest city. The menu is peppered with throwbacks to her childhood.

“I’ve taken my dad’s classics,” she says, “and drawn upon my cooking school techniques to modernize them.” The idea is to evoke Cuba in its culinary heyday — before communism made proper ingredients difficult to come by.

La Cubana’s chef, Leah Marshall Hannon (previously chef de cuisine at Delux) does an excellent job of adhering to this vision, putting out vibrant fare that’s heavy on snacks and sandwiches. It’s some of the best food on the entire Roncesvalles strip.

Tiger shrimp ($7) can be boring, but chef marinades them overnight in Worcestershire, Tabasco and herbs before giving them a mean sear on the grill and sweetening them with coconut cream sauce and corn salsa. Thinly sliced plantains ($4) are deep-fried, salted and served with salsa so that they’re kind of like tortilla chips, but more Caribbean. La Cubana serves Cuban entrees ($15) as well, including roasted pork with rice and beans, red cabbage slaw and tostones, which are savoury, twice-fried plantain slices.

But before La Cubana, before Delux and before every new restaraurant in Toronto began serving tapas, there was Julie’s Cuban Restaurant. It’s been around since 1995. The place is easy to miss, since it’s on a mostly residential section of Dovercourt, near Dundas.

Owner Sylvia Llewellyn, who co-owns the place with chef Jesus Baute, says that Julie’s was the first Cuban restaurant to open in Toronto.

It’s a great spot to hang out, if only for the ambience. The place is reminiscent of the original La Palette, back when was an impossibly charming bistro in Kensington Market. The food, however — ceviche, chorizo, empanadas, plantains and other such fare — is often lackluster, and it hasn’t evolved much since the place first opened. There’s some good stuff here though, including the corn fritters ($8), which are delicious.

Considering that Toronto has recently fallen hard for Spanish and Mexican cuisine, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cuban food becomes the city’s next infatuation.

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