author photo

Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

A New Restaurant in Havana’s Cerro

January 30, 2014 | Print Print |

Graham Sowa

The "Aqui" cafe in Havana's Cerro neigborhood.

The “Aqui” cafe in Havana’s Cerro neigborhood.

HAVANA TIMES — Havana’s offerings of Comida Criolla mostly consist of overly greasy, yet surprisingly dry fare; usually served at room temperature.  My definition of the national food of Cuba got a second look after I went to the newish restaurant Aqui in the Cerro neighborhood of the capitol.

The location is just as noteworthy as the quality, as the Cerro neighborhood is not the place I expect to find food that is worth neither the money nor the wait.

The neighborhood’s main street, Calzada de Cerro, is littered with cafeterias or restaurants run out of homes that all sell the same low quality food with the same indifferent and, frankly, annoyed attitude.

Buying street food begins with the attendant ignoring my first attempts to order, usually busy paying attention to an important moment in a reggaeton music video.

Once I have their attention there is no guarantee I can hold it, as interruptions of passers-by almost always takes priority over my transaction.  Further frustration ensues while waiting.  The ultimate disappointment arrives with the food.  I frequently tell myself “never again”.

Based on this too often repeated experience I pretty much ignored people when they recommended I give Aqui a try.

However the other week my curiosity, and hunger for something new, got the best of me.  So I headed to Calle Patria, up the street from the Baseball Stadium Latinoamericano to give Aqui a chance to prove me wrong.

Inside the Aqui cafe.

Inside the Aqui cafe.

The location is overly typical of restaurants and cafeterias near the Calzada de Cerro: along the street inside an old building that has seen better days.  But the similarities end there.

The ambiance starts with plenty of natural sunlight since the front of the restaurant opens to the street through several sets of doors.  I imagine the traffic can be annoying on weekdays, but on Saturday afternoon it was super tranquil.

Restoration work inside the house has been minimal and smart:  a new coat of paint in original colors, attention to the details, ceramic tiled floor older than your grandmother, and an overall cleanliness that exceeds expectations of people used to Cuban eateries.

The service was quick and efficient; as it should be since there are only 6 tables.

Both times I have gone there were multiple offerings of pork, chicken and fish, or the 3 P’s of Cuban Cuisine: pollo, puerco, y pescado…unless of course you are eating off the government libreta, in which case there are only 2 Ps thanks to the “Pollo por pescado” program.

What makes the 3 Ps exciting at Aqui is that they are not afraid to incorporate new ideas in traditional Cuban cuisine.  It is as close as Cerro is going to get to fusion food any time soon.

It is worth visiting given its proximity to Capitolio and Havana Vieja, and will give the tourist a good example to see something in Cerro other than the Bocoy Rum Factory that receives tourists by the busload.

Aqui can easily be accessed from Capitolio via the P14 bus (get off at the stop closes to Patria…ask other bus riders) or taking a collective taxi from Parque de la Fraternidad.  Once at Patria Street and Calzada de Cerro walk half a block toward the baseball stadium.  Aqui is across the street from DiTu Pollo, a state run chain snack bar known for its poor service and selection of products that reads like a list of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

Aqui has managed to open a restaurant with half a dozen tables in a colonial home that lets you get away with eating a meal that would cost $5-$8 dollars in a state run place like Los Nardos for nothing more than $2-$3.  Accepts Cuban or Convertible Pesos.


What's your opinion?

  • Informed Consent

    How sad that true Cuban cuisines no longer exists in Cuba. No Tasajo or Ropa Vieja. And many of the seasonings are difficult if not impossible to get. Fortunately the Cuban diaspora of the 60′s was able to bring with them the heart and soul of Cuban cooking. To sample true Cuban cuisin you must travel to Miami, Tampa or New York.

    • Moses Patterson

      There is a Cuban restaurant in Isla Mujeres, Mexico (next to Cancun) called Qubana. It rivals the best Miami restaurants AND most of the staff are Cubans. I agree with you that it is sad that the best AUTHENTIC Cuban cuisine is found outside of Cuba.

  • emagicmtman

    Oh! for the Cuban cooking described in Lezama Lima’s Paraiso, where the protagonist describes in detail and baroque prose worthy of Faukner, an over many pages, a wonderful feast prepared many years before by his mother. Such cooking still exists in Cuba, at least according to Leonardo Padura through his character, Lt. Conde, in the policier novels. Some of my favorite parts of these novels is when the mother of his friend “Skinny” prepares a feast. Somehow, she always manages to corral all the necessary, but hard to get, ingredients.

    • informed Consent

      Im going to check out Paraiso.

      …thanks

  • Randall Sowa

    Could it be a paradox in irony that a unique common ground to both your Havana and Paris, yes the one in France share the privilege of reputed rude apathetically poor customer service and intentional disregard? My guess, and it is a guess having myself been in Cerro for roughly half a day in my life netting a contact sheet of a candid and roughly textured neighborhood is that in the case of Cerro and the future of Havana and eventually all of Cuba is that the effects of commercial competition even in a 6 table restaurant will be recognized and appreciated. People will find value and comfort in friendliness unless the last 60 years of stately handouts and no commercial expectation has wiped the slate of making a buck clean off the island. I dream success for the brave though. Maybe inviting Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to make a food grade tour of Havana for the US Food Network would be a spark to get a few more kitchens on fire.
    However for Paris, I think frankly they just missed the boat and don’t give a rat’s hind quarter if anyone cares or not. Now or ever. But they do have some tasty cheeses.
    Bonjour !