Cuba's Enterprising Cooks Open Their Homes

Since Castro's government legalized small, private eateries, 'paladares' keep popping up

Cubans may debate the merits of the economic reforms that President Fidel Castro Ruz has begrudgingly undertaken over the past few years - do they go too far, or not far enough? - but on one count there's virtual agreement.

The food offered restaurant-goers on this Communist island is more savory, more interesting, and more varied, since families with a hankering to cook were allowed to open their kitchens to the public, and to charge for it.

Called paladares after the Spanish word for palate, Cuba's private restaurants are concentrated in Havana, where an estimated 1,500 now exist. Most serve chicken or pork, either fried or in a tomato-based sauce; Cuba's trademark rice and black beans; fried plantains; salads built around tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers; and fruit, various puddings, or flan for dessert.

They also serve lobster and shrimp, prepared in various ways, even though the selling of crustaceans remains illegal and punishable by high fines and even the revocation of a restaurant license. Mr. Castro wants those big-draw items for his state-owned restaurants and for export to earn hard currency, but no one seems to pay much attention. Once the door was opened, one of the tenets of capitalism - that you give the customer what he wants - was not about to be obeyed halfway.

The paladares sprang up beginning in 1993, when a September law allowing certain categories of self-employment, including the sale of "light foods (drinks, sandwiches, candies, et cetera)" appeared to allow them. The law was also passed about the time a popular Brazilian soap opera romanticized the idea of opening a little restaurant of one's own.

Night after night the show recounted how a poor Brazilian woman traded her rags for riches as she astutely turned a modest street foodstand into a chain of restaurants named Paladar. Not immaterial was the fact that "Raquel," the Brazilian success story, told her tale just as Cuba was experiencing a steep economic decline and widespread food shortages. Paladar left Cuban mouths watering.

The rush to open private, in-home restaurants, serving foods mostly bought off the black market or stolen from government warehouses, was so alarming that by December 1993 the government thought better of the "et cetera" in the self-employment law and banned the restaurants.

But it was too late - a fact the government finally acknowledged in June last year, when it reversed its decision once more. Paladares are legal again, but they are highly taxed and limited to no more than 12 seats.

At Tertulia, a homey paladar around the corner from Havana's imposing monument to the Revolution, Dania and Jacinto Prez offer a good example of what can make the paladar such an appealing alternative to even Havana's "good" state-run restaurants.

The Prezes greet you like friends into their book-and-painting studded home, and the conversation they willingly engage in is welcome after the indifference one can encounter in the city's Soviet-like state eateries.

" 'Tertulia' means a place for literary gatherings, for interesting get-togethers, and that's what we want our home to be," says Jacinto, himself a painter. Most of Tertulia's clients are friends from the intellectual community and their foreign friends. "We want to remain selective," says Dania, her hair cut short-short and dyed a fashionable red. "It's not elitist, it's just that while we may live from this [business], we also live in this house."

Then, of course, there's the food. Jacinto prepares a wonderful limonada, and the salad plate they serve is varied and beautifully arranged. But for sheer ecstacy it would be hard to top Dania's black beans, prepared with what she says are "copious amounts" of mint from her own front yard.

The Prezes also ran their paladar before it became legal; so for them, one of the biggest changes since June is simply the security of knowing that the permit they hold means the police can't just barge in and close them down.

That happened once. In the middle of serving a meal, the police came through the front door and over the garden wall, apparently acting on a tip from some go-by-the-books neighbors. ("We were always discreet, but we couldn't control the good odors from our kitchen," Dania surmises.) Dania, a former bureaucrat, was hauled in for questioning, but the Prezes figure it was pressure from well-placed intellectual friends that got them off the hook and allowed their enterprise to continue until paladares were legalized.

The Prezes note that Havana's produce markets are supplied with better and more varied products than just a year ago. Another change Jacinto says they have felt since "legalization" is increased competition - although he says many paladares have already come and gone, with the total number down from more than 2,000 at the height of their popularity. The government last month announced that 1,900 paladares have been authorized and that requests for 200 more were submitted in March.

"The high taxes are one factor," he says, noting that restaurants charging in dollars must pay $400 a month for their license. Beginning this year, they will also pay an income tax.

But he says the rush to open private restaurants has made a weeding-out process inevitable. "The benefit of this for everybody in Cuba is that this is creating competition for the state as well," he says. "The result is that everybody, not just the successful private restaurants, is being forced to become more efficient and productive."

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Lzaro Prez, no relation to Dania and Jacinto, says he opened Sagitario, his central Havana paladar, after it became legal to do so, in part because he had become so frustrated with his job managing a government store. "Introduce the measures you want, but nothing can really improve the workings of the collective system," he says.

Sagitario is located on a bombed-out street that looks like something out of Beirut or Mostar or Grozny. In evening's darkness the only thing identifying it is a single strand of tiny red Christmas lights on the second-story balcony. But inside the restaurant's small dining room - 16-foot ceilings over an Oriental-patterned tile floor, with white plaster walls broken by huge shuttered windows and a backlit Sagittarius - the feel is warm and chic.

And Sagitario's food is tasty and imaginative. The main course I chose, a dish of tender pork in a finely seasoned cream sauce, was especially welcome after lunch in an uninspiring state-run restaurant. That meal consisted of an inedible sawdust paste that didn't even try to be the ground steak I had ordered.

Paladar owners start with a private home, and they have to have some financial ability to get such an enterprise going, so they tend to be Cubans who are economically above the average. Because they belie the myth that all Cubans are equal, they are disdained by the Communist elite - including apparently by Castro himself, who is said to refuse to set foot in a paladar - and can be resented by certain average Cubans, especially those who have no dollars to pay for a table.

That doesn't mean, however, that the myth of "Raquel" and her Paladar restaurants is no longer inspiring average Cubans.

On Havana's Linea Street, Ana Paneque is starting small, selling her homemade cakes and sandwiches from a modest folding table set up daily in front of her home. "My idea is to offer the best I can to the public, so they are satisfied and want to come back," she says, espousing a philosophy that just may get her somewhere.

Asked if she ever thinks about Raquel and imagines following in her footsteps, the middle-aged woman says dreamily, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice?"

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