I keep going back to Islas Canarias. Not the Spanish islands where so many of my fellow Cubans have roots, but the popular restaurant on Northwest 27th Avenue, near Little Havana, where I take friends and family looking for real Cuban cooking. Real and tasty.
In the early 1960s, my family lived in Tampa, and though that city has had a distinct Cuban flavor since the 1890s, we were hungry for something closer to what we knew on the island. There was a time when it could readily be found in Miami.
The taste of Cuban food that the first post-Castro exiles brought on their palates was manifest in the early eateries in what would become known as Little Havana. There was moros y cristianos piled high and topped with pork crackling at the marvelous Casablanca coffee shop, now a memory. Baked empanadas stuffed with ham, their dough glistening with egg wash, at La Gran Via bakery, today revived by new owners but not what I remember.
Nothing stood the test of time, a commodity that is kindling for the incendiary growth and change of this city. And Miami Cuban food declined. There’s still plenty of it, but much of it can be categorized as industrial.
My craving for the flavors of my Cuban childhood never left, only to be fed by disappointment, except when eating in private homes — and at Islas Canarias. It’s the same menu one expects at Cuban restaurants around town. Nothing fancy or exceptional. But consistently good.
In these days of regional fastidiousness, Islas Canarias would be the name of a place that served the dishes of that archipelago region of Spain. But it’s Cuban through and through, the name coming from the origins of the family that founded and still owns it.
Recently, I took my sister, who has lived most of her life far from sources of Cuban cooking. She had to have picadillo; I tasted it, and the ground meat was silky. When I asked owner Santiago Garcia, he told me it was ground by the in-house butcher, Juan Natalio, who has been with the restaurant since it opened 35 years ago.
I ordered pork with okra, quimbombó, a word that’s like onomatopoeia for an African drum. Okra stew is, indeed, offered to the African deities that dot my culture’s spiritual landscape.
I relish this cultural mishmash, but first of all the food has to taste good. And the puerco con quimbombó at Islas Canarias was delicious, its sauce green from the okra and green peppers, not the tomato-red that makes so many Cuban dishes taste the same. (Later, head chef Patricio Vindell told me he doesn’t use tomato in arroz con pollo, either, just annatto and saffron to color the rice.)
Vindell told me they make the original recipes of founder Raul García, whose family owned bar-restaurants in Havana. Santiago’s sister Nancy runs a tonier version, full bar and all, in West Miami, and there she gets a tad more modern. Still, she insists the base is “the same recipes, the same passion.” And some of the original staff, “all taught by the old man,” adds Santiago.
There were minor innovations along the way.
“When my dad started out, beef had gotten very expensive, so he began making steaks from chicken breasts and chicken thighs,” Santiago says, adding that Raul was one of the first in Miami to serve them.
And then there’s the felicitous fried cow mistake. Vaca frita is flank steak boiled to make soup, then pounded, fried with onions and garlic, and seasoned with sour-orange juice. “Experienced Latin cooks were hard to come by in my dad’s time,” Santiago says. “One of them made a mistake and shredded the beef, like for ropa vieja [the same beef cooked in a tomato sauce], instead of pounding it, and then he fried it. People liked it and it stayed that way on our menu.”
These are subtle variations on basic themes. Like many Miami Cuban eateries, Islas Canarias serves ajiaco — a boiled dinner of meats, Caribbean tubers, plantain and corn — on Mondays, following an old Cuban practice begun by a president who urged the citizens to consume Cuban produce at least once a week.
Side dishes are the traditional plantains and root vegetables, what Cubans call viandas, and other staples, like bean soups and rice. “All the viandas we serve here are fresh,” Vindell says.
I visited the kitchen, and, indeed, everything was fresh and homemade, including the malanga (taro) Vindell was boiling to make a popular cream soup and the plantains he was frying to later crumble into the pork-crackling-spiked mash called fufú.
There are Spanish-Cuban dishes, true to the roots of Cubans who, like me, are only a couple of generations away from Spanish immigrants to the island. Fabada, with broad beans and blood sausage; cocido, with chickpeas and cured meats; and caldo gallego, with white beans and greens, are regular specials, along with porrusalda (leek soup) and garbanzos fried with chorizo and green pepper. (Sebastian reveals a trick he learned from his cooks: Go easy on the green pepper, something many Cubans overdo, because it makes dishes too sweet.)
There are typical Cuban desserts, as well as Nicaraguan tres leches, which has become part of the Miami Cuban menu. And for those who come seeking coffee-shop fare, the Islas Canarias croquetas are legendary, as is its Cuban sandwich.
Except for a handful of items, including a Venezuelan plantain empanada stuffed with mozzarella, Islas Canarias has remained faithful to its Cuban roots. Chef Vindell is Nicaraguan and butcher Natalio, the oldest Islas Canarias staffer, is Puerto Rican, so it’s not solely in the blood. It’s in the tradition.
As our city hurls toward the future at a dizzying speed, and the culinary world rushes to venerate the new new thing, it’s comforting to see a family put on the brakes and, in doing so, succeed.