For quite some time, Cuba was a tropical playground for Americans looking for a quick getaway. Then came Castro’s Communist regime, followed by an American embargo and suddenly, Cuba was cut off from most of its suppliers. With little in the way of raw materials, the Cuban people made the best with what they had. Old American autos were kept running for years beyond their life expectancy. With limited agricultural resources the, Cuban people were equally resourceful.
Cuban cuisine is a blend of the food of indigenous peoples, with heavy influences of the Spanish, French, and Portuguese that settled on the island. There are even influences from African and Chinese immigrants. Cuban food reflects European influences much more predominantly than that of Central and South American, or most of the Caribbean for that matter. The food tends to be more savory, utilizing garlic, cumin and oregano, rather than spiciness derived from peppers. Sofrito, a blend of sautéed onion, green pepper and garlic, is a basis for most dishes. Meats and poultry are usually marinated in citrus juice and slow cooked until tender. Rice, along with plantains, yucca and black beans accompany most dishes. In Cuba, most cooks must shop using ration coupons and seafood is usually reserved for the upper class and tourists. That’s why you’ll find few dishes featuring fish, even though Cuba is an island.
Key West is just 90 miles from Cuba and Miami is just up the road a bit, so many of those fleeing Castro’s Cuba headed there. Miami was, and still is, a source for great Cuban food, but many Cubans are venturing farther north to settle, and we reap the benefits of their rich cuisine.
1135 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale
The Padrino family tradition stretches all the way back to a small food market and winery in 1930s Cuba. Diosdado Padrino opened his first restaurant in America in Hialeah in 1976. Five years later he opened a larger restaurant in Hallandale, a year later his son Mario expanded the business, which now includes five locations. The newest restaurant just opened in Fort Lauderdale and features a menu of traditional dishes served at a reasonable price point. Sandwiches are in the $10 range, entrees are about $6-$8 more on average, both include side dishes.
Of course, you can find the Cubano, crusty bread, stuffed with ham, sliced roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles, then pressed and grilled. Other Cuban favorites on the menu include chicken and pork cutlets as well as the Palomilla, a thin, juicy, steak topped with sautéed onions and potato sticks.
Start your meal with the appetizer combination which features plantain chips, picadillo empanadas, ham croquettes, and fiesta tostones (hand pressed green plantains, fried and topped with creole chicken or chorizo sausage, cheese and cilantro-tomato salsa).
There are soul-stirring bowls of soup including a rich stock with tons of tender chicken and soft carrots, traditional black bean and caldo gallego (white bean soup, with chunks of smoked ham). Cups are $3-$4 and bowls are only a buck more. For something lighter there are salads, including a mango infused Caesar, all available with the addition of grilled chicken or seafood.
Meat and potato eaters will love the churrasco (char-grilled skirt steak) with house-made
chimichurri and lechon asado (slow roasted pork topped with sautéed onions). Naturally, the national dish of Cuba, ropa vieja (a pot roasted flank steak with green
peppers and onions) is offered, as are masas de Puerco (fried chunks of pork topped with grilled onions) and the lesser known, but equally delightful chilindron de carnero, a tender lamb shank in a Creole sauce. All entrees come with beans, rice, yucca or sweet plantains, but the sides can be switched around. Do yourself a favor and make certain to get the buttery boiled yucca.
There is a full bar and wine list available. Dessert options include tres leches cake, rice pudding and flan, but I doubt you’ll have room.
If you’re looking for more examples of Cuban fare, check out these gems.
Mario’s Catalina Restaurant
1611 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale
A bit upscale and pricey, but well worth every penny.
925 Nuevos Cubanos
925 N. Andrews, Fort Lauderdale
This feels like a place you’d find along a road in Cuba. Those into burly muscle guys will be drooling over the owner as much as the food.
525 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale
Although it looks like a chain, this coffee shop, from the owners of Hollywood’s Miramar Bakery, dishes up some serious Cuban fare. The brunch is fabulous, especially the tres leches waffle stack.