In photos of Cuba, time seems to have stopped 50 years ago. The cars on the streets would be collector's items if someone hadn't been driving them for decades. Concrete curbs are cracked and thickets of weeds replace banisters on stone balconies. At Garcés, a Cuban restaurant in a former Mid-City neighborhood corner grocery store, I have a similar feeling of stepping into the past.
The restaurant opened in 1981, but the decor follows an older style. Padded frames line the windows and flower decals decorate the ceiling fans' sconces. Soap operas mutely unfold on an old television while Cuban music plays in the background. On one wall, slats of mirrors feel vaguely glamorous in the style of a 1950s Havana nightclub.
One slow afternoon, I stopped by Garcés for lunch as the last customers were paying their checks. The waitress, after returning several times to report that the kitchen was out of items that I had ordered, summoned a man who guided me through the dishes available that afternoon and translated my order into Spanish for the older woman in the kitchen. While waiting, I sipped a batido de guanábana, a citrus-flavored milkshake with the consistency of eggnog, and regretted not ordering the morir soñando, a mixture of milk and orange juice that translates as "to die dreaming." The man, who I learned was the owner's son, told me I wouldn't like it. Next time, I vowed -- but that was the last time it was available.
Each table receives chips and salsa, but you're better off skipping them for the Cuban appetizers. (The tortilla chips, like the menu of tacos and burritos, are probably a concession to gringos who expect all Latin American restaurants to follow the format of a Tex-Mex cantina.) The croquettes arrive steaming hot and filled with smoky ham and béchamel. I doubt that many orders survive uneaten long enough to cool down. The empanadas, their crust blistered from the hot oil, are stuffed with picadillo, a hash of ground beef, onions, green bell peppers and garlic that is common in Cuban cooking. The best appetizer, though, is the tamal, similar to a Mexican tamale but with a creamier texture, the taste of corn pudding and a nugget of tender pork hidden in the center.
Cuban food is the other Creole cuisine, or cocina criolla. Mixing tropical ingredients with influences from Spain, France, Africa and China, along with circa-1950s American recipes, most Cuban dishes require slow cooking and shun the spicy peppers favored throughout Latin American. The Cuban pressed sandwich has become almost as common on American menus as spring rolls and fajitas, but the authentic versions served at Garcés might surprise you. A medianoche special of ham, roast pork, Spanish chorizo, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and mustard arrives on shockingly orange-colored egg bread that's addictively sweet. A Cuban steak sandwich, dressed with mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce, is filled with slices of steak pounded thin and marinated in lime before being fried.
The same Cuban steak, covered in beefy-tasting sliced onions with sides of black beans and white rice, can be ordered as a main course. The Cuban steak, the sandwiches, pork chops, and a collection of steaks stuffed with shrimp, sausage, ham or lobster, are available every day for lunch and dinner. Other Cuban classics are daily specials. Ropa vieja, slow-simmered shredded beef tangled with sliced onions and strips of green pepper, can be found on Wednesdays. It's even better the second day, so ask about leftovers on Thursday. Here, the ropa vieja has only a touch of tomato sauce, which allows the subtle spices of the meat to shine through. On Thursdays, Garcés serves a fricassee of tender chicken surrounded by green olives and stewed potato quarters and lightly coated in a sauce of tomato and paprika. A large selection of seafood, including shrimp Creole, fried fish and seafood soup, supplies the Friday specials.
Sides of black beans, the Cuban national dish, and slightly sweet fried plantains, cut on the bias and seared a dramatic bronze color, can be added to entrées any day of the week. Among the Cuban dishes I sampled, the only slight disappointment was the paella with roasted red peppers, chicken, shrimp and lobster tails. I expected a more intense saffron taste, and the long-grain rice, preferred by Cubans over the risotto rice typically used in other versions of the dish, lacked the plump texture I love in paella.
Garcés feels almost like a restaurant set up in someone's living room. There is nothing fancy about it, but small touches make you feel welcome. Carmen Garcés, the owner, cooks everything herself and walks through the dining room to gauge people's reactions. Service can be haphazard, but the beer mugs arrive frosted and the waitress might give you a sample of the milkshake you considered ordering. The tables are set with white linen as if you were a special guest. This must have been what it was like to dine at the Garcés' home in Cuba. Before Castro's revolution. Before the family abandoned their native island. Before the Garcés found a new home in New Orleans.