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Havana restaurants thrive on available local food

At Doña Eutimia in Havana, fried, marinated pork.
At Doña Eutimia in Havana, fried, marinated pork. SHEERE NG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

HAVANA — You run a restaurant famous for its pork chop. But there’s none in the fridge. You check the pantry only to find that salt is also running low. You call your local store and they inform you that the entire city is out of these items. The replenishments will arrive two days later.

This scenario is reality for restaurateurs in Havana. To invigorate the struggling economy, the government loosened the regulations on private restaurants in 2010, but food shortages and rationing persist in the country. “It is still hard to find ingredients we need,” says Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida, one of the longest established and most reputable private restaurants here. “This has nothing to do with the restrictions. You simply cannot find them in Cuba.”

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Havana may boast kaleidoscopic Cadillac and Art Deco architecture, but the food landscape, until recent years, was nothing colorful. In different state-run restaurants, the same smells of leathery pork chops and rancid fritters permeate the air, thus, the country’s reputation among tourists for boring food. In 1995, the Cuban government finally opened the door to private restaurants, also known as paladares, but then it gets in the way of their success. Paladares were not allowed to seat more than 12, and they could not sell seafood except fish from the state-run markets. The number of paladares dwindled from about 300 in 1996 to less than 100 in 2006.

After these regulations were abolished, “one paladar opens every day,” says Daylin Hernàndez Diàz, who works with Cafe Laurent. The restaurant belongs to the crop of new paladares that have added a slew of foreign-influenced dishes, such as lobster with pumpkin puree and watermelon consomme, to Havana’s previously lackluster dining scene.

While these dishes demonstrate creativity, they also reflect the reality of food that is inaccessible under the communist regime. Paladares are dependent on the state-run markets for supplies, but the government limits even their own restaurants’ monthly provisions, and rarely answers to demands for more, says an employee at a state-run restaurant. Restaurateurs bring in everything from cheeses to spices from their overseas travels, but mostly resort to crude local equivalents, as their dishes show.

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The best way to deal with inaccessibility is to serve food that Cubans eat at home. Doña Eutimia, another paladar that opened soon after the policy reform, thrives on a homey menu. Frituras de malanga (fritters of a root vegetable similar to yam), mases de cerdo a la criolla (fried, marinated pork), and ropa vieja del chorro (shredded lamb in tomato-based sauce) may be as clichéd as Che Guevara T-shirts, but the paladar’s versions are outstanding.

Fritters of root vegetable.
Fritters of root vegetable. SHEERE NG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Fritters have layered textures of crisp, crunch, and softness, while its garlicky fried pork is redolent of onions and pimiento. The impressive mutton stew is cooked till soft but not dry, in a tomato sauce perfumed with bay leaf, oregano, and garlic. Entrees come with the Cuban staple of rice and frijoles negros, but arroz de Cubana, rice mixed with a piquant tomato sauce and egg yolks of two sunny-side-ups, combats Cuba’s hot and humid climate better.

“Tourists think [Cuban] food is boring because all the restaurants serve the same food. But not all cook the same way,” says Doña Eutimia’s owner, Leandro Martinez Abad, who runs the restaurant from a colonial-style house decorated with stained-glass ornamented swinging doors and wall-mounted oil lamps. As he speaks, a group of 12 tourists is seated at a table backed by a wall of grandfather clocks and artwork from a nearby workshop, their tableware illuminated by the flood of afternoon light from the cobblestone street.

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Cuban cuisine is becoming attractive to tourists, according to the Ibero-American Academy of Gastronomy, an institution based in Spain that promotes cuisines from former Spanish colonies in the Americas. And as the organization’s executive vice president, Nicolas Muela, points out in an interview with The Havana Reporter, the incentive for cooking traditional food is that “a chef will always have access to the best raw ingredients.”

A glimpse of the paladar’s interior.
A glimpse of the paladar’s interior. SHEERE NG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Cafe Laurent Calle M #257 entre 19 y 21 Penthouse, Vedado, La Habana, 011-53-7-831-2090, info@cafelaurentcuba.com

DOÑA EUTIMIA Plaza de la Catedral, La Habana Vieja, Callejón del Chorro, #60C, 011-53-7-861-1332, d.eutimia@yahoo.es.

La Guarida Concordia No. 418, Gervasio y Escobar, Centro Habana, La Habana, 011-53-7-866-9047, paladar@laguarida.com

Sheere Ng can be reached at sheere.ng@gmail.com .