Fernando Saralegui's Best Eats Havana
Dishing on the many flavors of Cuba’s capital
By Barbara Purcell,
4:35PM, Tue. Feb. 18, 2020
Fernando Saralegui wants you to try Cuban food—preferably in Cuba. “The food of Cuba is the food of the world,” says the Havana-born, Austin-based, New York transplant who has worked in kitchens from coast to coast.
In his new book Best Eats Havana — part travel guide, part cookbook — the restaurateur/serial entrepreneur escorts readers through the neighborhoods, nightlife, and know-before-you-go highlights of a city once known as the “Paris of the Caribbean."
Saralegui, who has opened restaurants in Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City (he even cooked a Cuban Thanksgiving at the James Beard House) has put together this book the way he might put together a meal: eclectic, authentic. And what he brings to the table, so to speak, is the thing he learned best from his old boss Alice Waters: “integrity – of product, of effort, of everything.” Though Saralegui graduated from U.C. Berkeley, Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse Restaurant just off campus, he says, is his true alma mater.
Best Eats Havana celebrates the creative ingenuity of a culture often defined by constraints. A succinct 500-year timeline in the first chapter gets us up to speed on the historical, political, and social events which have shaped the country’s now vibrant hospitality and culinary scene. Privately owned restaurants known as paladares (“the Portuguese word for ‘palate,’” Saralegui writes) can be found throughout the city, thanks in large part to a loosening of strict government regulations.
Farmers, he explains, are now able to sell directly to these independent restaurants, creating an urban agriculture economy and farm-to-table experience, not unlike Austin's Wink Restaurant, where Saralegui is both bartender and maître’d. “Wink has all the different influences, while still being American,” he explains, a description which also applies to Cuban cuisine: “There’s just tons of innovation." When I ask him what Austin’s food scene could learn from Havana’s, he reminisces about the good old days in this town, when restaurants could break the rules and still get building permits: “Havana is more Wild West than Austin.”
Though Saralegui writes extensively about the renaissance of Havana’s diverse food scene, the book’s final chapter is dedicated to classic Cuban recipes (including cocktails) that are still found on most every menu – and are simple enough to pull off in your own kitchen. “It’s an emotional palette,” he confesses, when I ask which dish is his favorite. After rattling off a few recipes from the list, he gives an official answer: “Plantains Four Ways – I’ve included both the Spanish and Creole version.”
Best Eats Havana slips nicely into a travel bag if you do find yourself heading to Havana. (Despite Trump banning U.S. cruise ships from visiting, it is still very much possible to fly there from here.) With over 60 restaurants and bar recommendations (marked either as paladar or state-run), easy-to-follow etiquette tips, a list of Spanish vocab essentials, and a helpful breakdown of neighborhoods, you’ll be sipping mojitos and spouting Hemingway in no time.
Best Eats Havana: 60+ Restaurants, Bars, and Cafes to Try in Cuba's Capitalby Fernando Saralegui
Countryman Press, 168 pp., $22.95