Three Dallas Cuban-owned restaurants that remind fans of home
It’s not about getting a badge of authenticity. For Ernesto Vélez, owner of the Havana Cafe in Casa Linda, it is more of an emotional thing to get the right cheese, the right bread and slowly simmer the pork in the kettle of the Sofritos. Cooking with the right ingredients – not those you have to cook with, but those that make you feel – is one way Vélez connects his heart and soul with his native Holguín, Cuba.
Before the pandemic, there were other ways he could keep the connection going: live music and splashing rum on ice on crowded Friday evenings, drifting and crunching sugar cubes in mint at the mojito bar. Now there is a hole. He can feel a windy space where his joint was full of happy souls. Mojo sauce and ropa vieja as well as old-school sandwiches are a balm.
“We’re in there,” says Vélez of the pandemic. “I miss the Friday evenings. I miss the music. “
Vélez ran the now closed Havana Social Club outside the East Dallas cafe and lit cigars for the crowd in Victory Park. In 2013 he opened the small shop on White Rock Lake with the sea-blue door “as a need of the growing Cuban population in Dallas”.
Havana Cafe in Dallas
(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)The Cubano Sandwich at Havana Cafe in Dallas
(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)
Despite the pandemic’s efforts against it, entering the Havana Cafe take away is still an escape. The Ropa Vieja, one of the national dishes of Cuba, is a first-class brisket that is cooked slowly and slowly with a sofrito made from chopped tomatoes, garlic, oregano and lots of paprika.
Fresh plantains, peeled, diced and fried, sprinkled with the mind-altering garlic from Vélez’s mojo sauce, are a journey. Paired with their Cubano – good Serrano ham, Gouda melted in everything, mustard, slowly rolling pork on slices of bread – it’s the much-needed free time that lets your feet fall in white sand under an azure sky.
“It’s very expensive, but guess what, I don’t care,” says Vélez of sourcing the peeled, fresh plantains. “That’s how it should be.” The mojo sauce is pure fireworks, all garlic and citrus fruits. Get something on the side and squirt it all over the plate.
Coronavirus or not, finding the right ingredients for his menu was a challenge. So why go the extra mile for those who remind him of home?
“I feel closer to my roots. I feel closer to my family, ”he says.
Co-owner Lidisy Becerra in the main dining room of the Caribbean restaurant Cuba Cuba in Carrollton(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Lidisy Becerra moved to Dallas via Cienfuegos, Cuba in 2006. Her cousin Ibet Becerra owned the Caribbean Cuba in Carrollton (it was a small cafe then), and Lidisy trained as a waiter behind the counter for six years. She became a kindergarten teacher for a while, but is now back in the restaurant sending a stunning Cubano sandwich from her kitchen.
Caribbean Cuba has always been a meeting place for families. Mask and bunker next to the inner palm, dip fried plantain slices in creamy black beans and repeat the process. Lidisy runs it with her sister Irelis Becerra, and her mother and aunt, the matriarchs of taste, often stop by to try the food.
“We do not want to. We’re just very, very Cuban, ”says Lidisy.
A Cubano sandwich with sliced pork, ham and Swiss cheese, served with french fries from the Caribbean Cuba restaurant in Carrollton(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)
Caribbean sandwiches are gems. Nice and clean layers of spicy cheese, ham, and fried pork combine with soft inside and outside bread. There is something deeply satisfying about the pointed triangular cut of this Cubano: all of the crispy, sedimentary layers of pork are visible and covered with crinkle-cut cucumbers. It’s the perfect geometry experiment to dip into a circular baking dish with an intense, garlicky mojo sauce.
Carrollton is home to many great Cubans. At the Cuba Bella Cafe, another 100 percent Cuban-owned joint, fried pork slivers lie beneath crispy, then soft bread, garlicky yellow mustard pan drops, pickles and shaved ham. Then there is bread baked to the bone at Cuban Dulceria International. Your cubano consists of thin lines of ham over a nest of juicy, shredded pork. Yellow mustard brightens things up.
“I don’t know much about the future now,” says Lidisy Becerra. “We’re doing well today, but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
In the spring of 2020, the pandemic kept Becerra’s customers in check for three weeks. However, the closed doors did not deter anything. The phones never stopped ringing. As soon as it opened again and was ready to take away, orders rolled in like the tide. Becerra recalls, “Let me tell you, we had lines.”
Now regulars can sit outside on a small terrace with a cup of coffee and a plate of mariquitas. Some customers come from Texas twice a day for an espresso and some sun.
“This is home to so many Cubans,” she says. “Sometimes they come for lunch and come back for dinner. We have a big family here. “