by Yusimi Rodriguez (Photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — Since some private businesses were authorized in the 90s and self-employment licenses began to be granted in 2011, private food stands, cafes and restaurants are the fastest-spreading enterprises in Cuba. One place where you see a new establishment open (or close) virtually every day is Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado.
Though not all are successful, private eateries now outnumber State-run establishments. Calle 23 is home to many of these. Most offer the familiar spaghetti, ham and cheese pizzas, omelet sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers and traditional Cuban food.
Now, if you want to try something different and experience a wider range of tastes, head over to El Burrito Habanero (“Havana Burritos”), at the intersection of 23 and G streets. The restaurant was recommended to me three years ago by a fellow blogger. For me, it started out as a vegetarian (and affordable) alternative I could turn to when I got tired of eating pizza, spaghetti or rice, beans, root vegetables and greens.
I went there the first time when the restaurant was a small locale on one of the streets perpendicular to 23. I made a beginner’s mistake: I ordered a bean and vegetable burrito, to get full, and ended up eating four burritos, because each order comes with two, with a side of fresh vegetables (as all dishes there do). If you like spicy food, there’s red and green chili sauce available (both of them hot). There’s also olive oil, wine, rice or sherry vinegar…and guacamole.
In December of 2012, I found the restaurant had moved to the entrance of an old, colonial mansion near 23 and G, right in front of the Riviera cinema, and that it had begun to offer a much wider range of foods (a menu which threatens to grow even bigger).
Though vegetarians (and even Vegans) will find options there, El Burrito Habanero is not a vegetarian restaurant. In addition to the abovementioned Mexican dishes, it offers rice (save for Cuban rice-and-beans), black beans (which are nothing like the ones we Cubans are used to eating) and many meat dishes.
Behind this rather risky venture is Javier Martinez, an attentive man, constantly concerned over his customers’ satisfaction and ever busy, passionate about cooking. He has devoted twenty years to the business and has a broad background. After graduating from the Sergio Perez Cooking Academy with honors, he completed the Hotel Comodoro chef’s course, the Kitchen Chef course offered in San Sebastian, Spain, a head chef course in Italy and executive chef program in Mexico where he worked for the Marriot chain. In Cuba he was head chef for the Comodoro and Telegrafo hotels, as well as at the Jazz Café and El Gato Tuerto. He was later an assistant manager for food and drinks.
You were in Mexico for five months. Was that enough to learn Mexican cuisine?
Javier: I learned the essentials of Mexican cuisine, which is very tasty. It’s a large country and every region has its own dishes. You have to grasp the essence: the guacamole, the spices, the pico de gallo, general things. There are quesadillas throughout Mexico. Burritos are more common in the north, though you can find them in other regions. Tacos are more popular further south.
Later, following suggestions from customers, I tried to broaden the menu to include food from across Latin America, one or two dishes from each country. There’s the patacón pisao and bandeja paisa from Colombia, the baleada from Honduras and ceviche from Ecuador or Peru (there’s some debate there). We’re going to begin offering Ecuadorian encebollado, Venezuelan arepas and Salvadorian pupusas. We have Argentinean breaded beef (which is originally Italian, but was made popular by Argentina) and even have a breaded beef day. We offer a breaded chicken breast covered with tomatoes, lettuce and tomato sauce under the French fries.
What are the risks involved in a restaurant like El Burrito?
Javier: The first is what Cubans are used to eating, but I overcame that challenge. Foreigners would bring them to the restaurant and people would start recommending it to others. Cubans love chimichangas and chilaquiles, a Mexican version of lasagna. What many Cubans don’t like are burritos or tacos. They involve mixing ingredients that we’re not used to.
We have a Latin American background, even though we have different customs. Nearly all of us were colonies of a single country. The difference here is that local tribes were exterminated. They didn’t get a chance to develop and that’s why our cuisine is not so diverse.
HT: I enjoy the coriander in the food, but it might put other people off.
Javier: It holds them back a bit. Some ask me for Cuban-styled beans. I tell them they can get that at El Cochinito across the street. You have to give credibility to what you do. You can be flexible, because you’re running a business, but you can’t go against your concept, because then your business lacks character.
HT: But you’ve started offering spaghetti, which has nothing to do with Latin American cuisine.
Javier: Many people would come with children and ask me: don’t you have any pizza or spaghetti? Many adults ask for it too because it looks very tasty.
I will most likely change the menu at the end of October. At the request of many Cubans (if I don’t pay attention to what my people are saying, who should I pay attention to?), I’m going to include typical, Cuban-styled pork and rice and chicken on the menu.
HT: But neither paella nor imperial rice are Latin American dishes. Fried rice is a Chinese dish.
Javier: The one we do is not like the traditional Chinese fried rice. Each of the Chinese ethnicities who settled here had their own way of making it, and it’s evolved into the Cuban style. At first, I had a small menu with different types of rice only. My experience allows me to merge different types of food and it’s worked. People ask for the rice a lot.
Javier tells me that, in addition to the burritos, tacos, chimichangas, quesadillas, vegetable chop suey and the salads already included on the menu, they will soon add a dish known as a Juanmi salad, for vegetarians.
Javier: A friend from California who lives in Cuba asked me to prepare it once. In addition to vegetables, it comes with cereals, seeds, poppy seeds and nuts.
El Burrito’s Challenges
HT: I’ve seen many foreigners from the continent and from Europe who have probably been to these countries. Do they feel you’ve managed to capture the authentic taste of Mexican, Colombian, Honduran and other foods?
Javier: Many say I have. Others say it resembles those foods. I believe I’ve done my best to prepare those dishes with the ingredients available in Cuba.
HT: What’s been the hardest thing about running this restaurant?
Javier: Chilaquiles gave me a lot of work. The cream used originally is not béchamel, it’s a milk-based cream, which I can’t really prepare. A single box costs 5 CUCs. Using it would mean charging a whole lot more for the dish, and that’s not my objective.
The hardest thing was preparing the tortilla dough. The one used for burritos is wheat-based, the others are corn. It took me three months to get it right. There’s a process known as “nixtamalization” which gives the flour body and makes it uniform. You can’t get that here, you have to mix it with a bit of wheat flour. It’s very hard.
I had to charge the same for all types of quesadillas, 60 Cuban pesos (3 USD), even the vegetable one, because cheese is sold at different prices in different stores. The cheapest costs 3.40 CUCs a pound [3.90 USD], which is the most I should actually spend on it. Since I have to pay more for it sometimes, I decided to standardize the price.
HT: Can’t you buy regular white cheese that other restaurants use?
Javier: Yes, but you might order 15 pounds of it and it doesn’t get to you on time because of transportation or other problems and you get stressed.
Right now, Javier is connecting a pipe from the house he rents to the bathroom he installed outside.
Uniting People Through Food
HT: Do you one day hope to offer a dish from each of the countries these flags represent?
Javier: Of course. I still have a way to go.
HT: Since when have you had the United States flag up?
Javier: For about five months.
HT: Do you think it could have caused you any problems before December 17?
Javier: None at all. I do culinary art. I unite peoples through food.
HT: A short while ago, you left in a hurry because you wanted to have a look at some wines. Are you thinking of adding a wine menu?
Javier: Some Latin American countries, such as Chile and Argentina, have a tradition of drinking wine. They even produce them. Cuba’s Soroa brand is not particularly good, but, for a meal like this one it could work, provided it’s chilled.
HT: Have you considered private wine producers?
Javier: Wine is a very delicate thing. There may be someone producing high-quality wine privately, but I don’t know of anyone. For the time being, I’ll buy them at the [government-run] store.
Making These Things Available to Cubans
HT: At El Burrito, all drinks are served in ceramic jars.
“Glass cups out in the open tend to break a lot. I looked for an option I could afford and people would like. They also have the logo of El Burrito. This type of business, with something of a rustic touch, is popular in Latin American countries. You don’t see many altars around here, but it’s common in those countries.
The cooks that work for Javier have been trained by him. “I wanted them to have my seal. I’ve served many who are no longer working for me, because they’ve found better options. And everyone leaves home to do better.”
For now, the signature dessert at El Burrito is flan. Javier wants to introduce refined pastries, but he hasn’t been able to get prices that would allow him to maintain his affordable prices. “I want my people, Cubans, to be able to enjoy these things,” concludes Javier.
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