When former President Barack Obama relaxed the restrictions on American citizens traveling to Cuba in 2014, there was a wave of renewed interest in that region's culture across the U.S. Tourism spiked dramatically on the Caribbean island, and by 2015, there had been a 77 percent increase in visitors from the United States alone. Considering this renewed interest, it's no surprise that Cuban cuisine is also making a resurgence.
I've only been in New Orleans since 2003, but it's interesting to note that not so long ago (but before I was here), there were many more Cuban restaurants in New Orleans than there are now. Esteemed local food writer Lorin Gaudin pointed this tidbit out to me when I queried her about the new interest we're seeing today. Changing trends and customer interest shifted the focus away from Cuban cuisine for a while, but it seems to be coming back.
One of the most popular and obvious examples would have to be Manolito, the Havana-inspired bar and café opened by Nick Detrich, who helped co-found Cane & Table, and Chris Hannah, the famed head bartender from Arnaud's French 75. Though the main attraction at Manolito would have to be its incredible daiquiris and other cocktails, the food prepared by Cesar Nunez, Coquette's chef de cuisine, is worth your attention. Score their earthy black bean soup with crema and crunchy plantain chips for $6 or their Cuban sandwich, pressed with flavorful mojo pork, ham, Swiss, and mustard, for $12—an excellent deal for lunch, especially in the French Quarter.
Another recent Cuban addition to our restaurant ranks is Que Rico! Owners Iderlin Donna Rivera and her husband, Richard, were forced to find a new building after nine years in Slidell, and fortunately for us, they relocated to a small space on the corner of Magazine and Milan Streets, Uptown. Since opening shortly before the New Year, the little aromatic place has been packed. Try a platter of their lechon (braised pork shoulder) asado or slow-roasted pork, served with rice, black beans, and sweet plantains, for $16 or a ropa vieja pressed sandwich for $12. They also serve Cuban coffee in different incarnations, and though I haven't yet tried it, I've been fantasizing about their Tres Leches Cortadito, made with heavy cream, condensed milk, and whole milk, for $3.50.
Open since late 2007, Mayas Restaurant in the Lower Garden District is certainly not new, and they have been serving several Cuban dishes for many years now. Their Cuban sandwich, available at lunch, is made with roasted pork, ham, provolone cheese, butter pickles, and mustard and is served with crispy fries for only $12. They also offer a lechon platter, with jasmine rice and ranchero black beans, for $13.
Another newcomer that's an installation at the popular Mid-City bar Twelve Mile Limit is Que Pasta. Run by Amada Alard and Zahara Dimassi (both originally from Florida), this creative pop-up offers dishes like smoked chicken empanadas, croquetas, oxtail stewed Cuban-style, and lechon over handmade pasta.
Finally, there are many other eateries around the GNO that offer Cuban-style dishes without necessarily being Cuban restaurants, like the Cubano at Luca Eats in the Carrollton neighborhood, with deli ham, pulled pork, and yellow mustard, for $11 or Cochon Butcher's version on a bolillo roll for $10. But one recently caught my eye and tempted my tummy: the Cubano at Piece of Meat, the new restaurant and butcher in Mid-City.
Opened by Daniel Jackson and Leighann Smith in April of last year, Piece of Meat offers a meat case with all kinds of deli delights, from mortadella and bacon to fresh bratwurst and Maple Leaf duck breasts. They also have a short-but-sweet menu, with items like a hot pastrami sandwich with thousand island dressing and “The Delicate Lady”—a smoked chicken salad with blueberry BBQ sauce—but it was their “regular special” that really had me oohing and aahing. It's a buttery pressed Cubano on Leidenheimer bread, made with their own city ham, Webber's mustard, dill pickles, Havarti cheese, and crispy Home Place Pastures (out of Mississippi) skin-on pork belly, for $14. Excuse me while I wipe the drool from my chin.