Most new paladares in Cuba have opened as finely tuned, highly polished culinary performances. Few have been as adventurous as Somos Cuba (translated “we are Cuba”), which stands out for its grungy Old Havana tenement setting and underground, bottom up, do-it-yourself attitude.
Only 3 months young, you are not going to find Somos Cuba in any guide books, and the eatery´s web presence is as limited as its 4 table dining room. In fact, physically getting there, while an easy walk from the Plaza Vieja or La Plaza de Armas, can be a chore due to minimal signage. Owner, operator and chef Vladimir Chacon has forgone the more traditional routes of advertising and instead focused on cultivating relationships with clients and letting word of mouth do the rest. The results have been somewhat spectacular.
“We like to talk with our customers and let them see what we are doing”, Vladimir explains as he pan sears a red snapper while sprinkling some fresh dill on the sautéed veggies simmering nearby. There is nothing separating the kitchen or prep area from the dining area, everything happens in one room. “I could tell you I designed it this way, but truthfully this set up is because this is the most space I could spare in my apartment”, Vladimir confesses. Aside from fish and vegetarian dishes the kitchen also turns out his signature dish: shredded slow roasted mutton.
Vladimir opened Somos Cuba in the same run-down apartment building where he has lived 40+ years of his life. Full of rickety staircases, add-ons, and walls painted various colors, this paladar is more than about eating food, it is about seeing the reality that many Havana residents call home.
Aside from running the restaurant he is also raising his two daughters. “I got my start at the state culinary school, then kept taking courses while working at El Templete (a state restaurant in Old Havana), and the Brewery in Plaza Vieja, I´ve been cooking for more than 20 years”. Vladimir turns from the conversation to tell his oldest daughter to go get ready for bed, tomorrow is a school day.
The daily menu depends on the season and if the fishermen that Vladimir buys snapper from had any luck the night before. Guaranteeing a fresh supply of produce in Havana can be tricky, so Vladimir hired an ex-produce vendor, Carlos, as his right hand man in the kitchen. Everything is so fresh that when we ordered mango juice Carlos began peeling a mango. “We don´t add sugar to our juice and we don´t sell soda”, Vladimir explains that if he kept it in stock his daughters would drink it all.
The juice is prepared in an aluminum blender from the Soviet Union, in fact the majority of the kitchen harkens back to the 80´s when Cuba imported their domestic goods from Eastern Europe. Other paladares are keen to hang this stuff on the wall or set it up for display to curious tourists, Somos Cuba puts it to use.
The boldness to start a paladar and not depend on having capital to import a bunch of new kitchen gadgets or renovate an entire building is what makes Somos Cuba just as special as its food. Dozens of restaurants in Cuba offer up a great dining experience in a familiar atmosphere. But the places like Vladimir´s are the ones that don´t let you forget you are in Cuba.
Somos Cuba is located at 202 San Ignacio between Obrapia and Lamparilla in Havana Vieja (Look for the arrows pointing up the stairs). Open every day from 12pm-12am. Reservations can be made at 7863 6339.
Photos and Text by Graham Sowa.