Cuba is perhaps best known for its socialism, salsa, rum, vintage cars and cigars rather than its gastronomy but amid the decaying colonial buildings and pot-holed streets of a city which until recently appears to have been stuck in a 1950s timewarp, there can now be found a few hidden gems.
In the 1950s, American movie stars and gangsters ruled the roost in this vibrant Caribbean city by gambling and partying until the place rocked. And rocked it was when Castro and his revolutionaries swept to power. A population exodus, the US blockade and an era of isolation followed in which socialist friends supported the remaining population of this small island state and its charismatic leader in their stance against the might of Uncle Sam and his cronies.
Times change and the latter half of the 1990s saw Cuba follow its socialist pals by somewhat reluctantly embracing a more 'commercial' form of socialism. Tourism. Poor infrastructure, tight government control and restricted imports, however, mean that the industry has not been able to flourish in quite the same way as its Caribbean neighbours. In terms of servicing the tourists most hotels and restaurants are state controlled. Restaurants often have limited menus due to food rationing and although cheap are not usually able to stretch much beyond providing the average customer with something to line their stomach. Indeed, there is a Cuban joke about the standard of the cuisine, "The three great gains of the revolution - health, education and culture - have been at the expense of breakfast, lunch and dinner."
The government eventually decided that private individuals should be given the chance to profit from the growing tourist market and so introduced 'paladares'. Apparently named after a restaurant in Brazilian soap opera these small restaurants are able to offer home-cooked food despite being evermore tightly controlled and subject to a wealth of regulations. These regulations include a limit of the number of diners, theoretically a maximum of twelve, and rules that employees must be family members and that seafood or beef cannot be served. Free enterprise has not completely arrived. However, the paladares existence means that tourists can sample something other than the staple tourist fare of comida criolla (chicken, pork rice and beans), moros y cristianos (beans and rice) or peso pizza. Paladar prices are still out of reach for most Cubans so don't expect to be dining with the locals.
Paladares vary in standards but one that has attracted some notoriety both for its clientele and cuisine is La Guarida ('the hideaway or den'). Hard to find in a residential area of Vedado, only the bouncers on the door would suggest anything special lies behind the crumbling walls of this former palace, now an apartment building.
Washing hangs from clotheslines, a dusty old car is parked in the former entrance hall and as you climb the winding marble staircase that once exhibited more grandeur than it does today you might even see a gaggle of children playing baseball in the former ballroom, at one time more used to dancing than batting. Eventually you reach the third floor and through a wooden door you feel as if you have entered a brave new world. La Guarida is in reality an apartment like many of the others on the corridor but its mustard yellow walls, cluttered Cuban kitsch decoration and photographs of famous American visitors coupled with the flavoursome aromas emanating from the tiny kitchen sandwiched between the dining rooms make it feel atmospheric and as if you are somehow subverting the Cuban socialist ideal.
Indeed, La Guarida does have what some may consider to be a 'subversive' past. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's controversial and Oscar-nominated Cuban film 'Fresa y Chocolate' (Strawberries and Chocolate) was shot here during the early 1990s, considered to be a black period for Cuba when the fall of the Soviet Union lead to an economic crisis as Cuba lost a key financial backer. The title of the film refers to ice cream flavours - the colour of strawbery ice cream, pink, is a metaphor for homosexuality and creativity, the brown of the chocolate symbolises the daily slog of state-controlled life. Tasting his ice cream, one of the film's main protagonists remarks that it, "is the only good thing left in this country. Soon they'll export it, and for us ... water and sugar." Today, film-makers and film stars visit the former film set. Uma Thurman, Benicio del Toro, Jack Nicholson, Pedro Almodovar and Steven Spielberg have all eaten here.
The food is considered to be nuevo Latin cuisine combining local ingredients in a fusion of Cuban and European styles. Whilst it may not rival that served in restaurants across the water it does attempt to move away from the more staple Cuban dishes and add a creative twist in terms of combining meat and fish dishes with more exotic flavours, for example, tuna in a coconut sauce. The bar is fully stocked but, be warned, don't ask for a Bacardi rum, the Bacardi family are not flavour of the month in Cuba. Havana Club is a better option. Things have moved on from Cuba's dark days when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians left and the period when 'Fresa y Chocolate' was set. Now there is a lot more than ice cream on the menu, although you can have your own taste of strawberry and chocolate ice cream, and Cuba can begin to think about exporting its positive gastronomic reputation rather than simply water and sugar.
Meal for 2 including drinks: approx $40
Concordia No.418 /Gervasio y Escobar.
Tel: (537) 863-7351, 866-9047