A Cuban food tradition where none exists

Eating on the Edge: At Paladar Cubano, the emphasis is on an authentic flavor that few in Seattle will recognize.
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Pedro Vargas, at his authentic food truck Paladar Cubano on Aurora.

Eating on the Edge: At Paladar Cubano, the emphasis is on an authentic flavor that few in Seattle will recognize.

All the cops on the popular television show Dexter take their coffee and buy their lunch from a food truck parked outside police headquarters. The mobile canteen serves Cuban food, a detail that lines up with the show'ꀙs setting in Miami.

The detail is unimportant to the premise of the show, about a crusading serial killer named Dexter Morgan, who also works for the Miami police department as a forensic specialist. The lunch truck is little more than a prop for the show, but verifies something that is basic to eating in Miami and much of Florida. Cuban food is everywhere. It is everyday food, satisfying and unspectacular, eaten and loved by everyone, Cubans and non-Cubans alike.

It is not enough to say Cuban food is popular in Miami. Thai food is popular in Seattle. Mexican food is popular in Denver. That is not saying the same thing. Cuban food is an integral part of Miamians'ꀙ sense of home because so many Cubans call it home. There, the Cuban food is not adulterated or customized with the hope of winning a new audience. There, Cuban restaurants don'ꀙt need a new audience. The old audience is ample in number.

Cubans in Seattle are a scattered and small minority, and Cuban food in Seattle is, for the most part, uncharted. A few restaurants in the city serve food that alludes to Cuban food. La Isla, in Ballard, serves an up-market style of Puerto Rican food, which, like Dominican food, is similar to Cuban food, owing to its use of roasted meat, stews, plantains, rice and black beans; La Casa del Mojito, on Lake City Way and in the University District, calls its menu 'ꀜLatin American,'ꀝ offering dishes it labels Venezuelan and Caribbean; Paseo, in Fremont and Ballard, calls itself a Caribbean restaurant and sells a phenomenally popular 'ꀜCuban'ꀝ roast pork sandwich that is unlike any you will find in Miami.

The food at all those places is delicious by almost any standard. But for Cubans, it does not taste quite like home.

'ꀜThe flavor is different,'ꀝ says Pedro Vargas, from the coastal town of Bahia Honda, Cuba, about 50 miles west of Havana. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs delicious, but it'ꀙs not real Cuban food. There is only one place in Seattle to get real Cuban food.'ꀝ

He is speaking rhetorically about his enterprise, called Paladar Cubano, located on the corner of 90th and Aurora in North Seattle, next to an auto shop, a Taco Bell and a Days Inn. Vargas, 40, a drummer of some repute in town, serves the simple country cooking of his hometown from a kitchen truck parked in the back of a gravel and dirt lot. The dining room is a tarp-covered deck. The word paladar refers generically to any number of small, family-operated restaurants in Cuba.

Vargas, who plays most nights in various salsa bands, including his own, Ashe, leases both the truck and the empty lot from a man he used to work with at a nearby used-car dealership where he worked as a lot attendant, washing cars.

His Chevrolet truck is equipped with a griddle, an electric rice cooker, a food processor, and two gas burners. A blackened saucepan acts as his deep fryer. It'ꀙs a true roadside operation with a small, simple menu.

Vargas makes two kinds of sandwiches, the classic Cuban (pork, ham, cheese, and pickles on a Cuban roll), and the media noche, or midnight sandwich (a hot, pressed, pork sandwich). He serves two kinds of meat, either roast pork or stewed beef, called ropa vieja, shredded flank steak cooked in a tomato sauce. Both are served with moros, a mixture of white rice and black beans. The only other meaningful menu options are tostones (fried, smashed green plantains) and fried yucca or cassava, a root vegetable common in the tropics.

Vargas roasts the pork at home the night before he serves it. He puts it in the oven, often before going out to play in a club. He instructs his wife to turn off the oven four hours later. He wakes up at 6 a.m. to prepare the rice and beans and to boil the beef for the ropa vieja. He works the truck with one employee, a young Peruvian-American woman named Margory Benavente, whom he used to work with at the car dealership. She assembles and prepares the food while Vargas works the counter.

'ꀜHe taught me a lot,'ꀝ Benavente says. 'ꀜAt the beginning, I sucked real bad.'ꀝ

As a young man, Vargas was a frequent visitor to the U.S., touring with musicians like Barbarito Torres, who is famous in Cuba. Vargas met his American wife five years ago at Jazz Alley, where he was performing with Torres. Their marriage landed him in Seattle, where he built up work playing dance music. He saved up for years to start Paladar Cubano, which opened seven months ago.

For those familiar with Cuban cooking, a creolized form of Spanish cooking, there are a few staples missing from Vargas'ꀙ menu. Paladar does not serve any fish or picadillo, a stew of ground beef, nor does it serve maduros, fried sweet plantains. Plantains for maduros have to ripen until they are nearly black. 'ꀜNext summer,'ꀝ Vargas pledges, hoping to expand his menu by then.

Eventually, he wants to open a traditional, full-service Cuban restaurant. It remains unclear whether there are enough Cubans in Seattle or enough non-Cubans familiar with the cuisine to support a thriving Cuban restaurant. Even some of his basic supplies are not easy to come by. He buys green plantains at the HT market on Aurora — the place doesn'ꀙt sell ripened plantains — where the old Larry'ꀙs market once operated. HT sells mostly Asian groceries, but stocks some Russian and Latin food. Unable to find authentic Cuban bread, he arranged to have a Peruvian bakery in Shoreline make the bread for him from a recipe he provided.

Many of his customers arrive expecting Mexican food. Most are new to Cuban food. A few are Peruvian, whose food is also Spanish in origin but not highly similar. The handful of Cubans Vargas knows live in the outskirts of Seattle, near Renton or in Shoreline, where Vargas lives. Some are handymen or bartenders.

'ꀜThe first thing I do is teach people what is Cuban flavor,'ꀝ Vargas says. 'ꀜCuban food is very simple. Oregano, garlic, onion, a little bit of cumin. That'ꀙs it. People think Cuban food is spicy, but it'ꀙs not spicy.'ꀝ

To generalize, Americans like spicy food. It plays especially well in Seattle. The city'ꀙs taste for spicy food is probably the reason Thai food is so ubiquitous here and preferred over Chinese, which many dismiss as bland, heavy and greasy (another debate entirely). Thai food is hot and sweet and tangy and therefore destined for success.

The flavors at places like Paseo and La Isla that proffer Latin or Caribbean-style food tend to be bright, sharp and peppery. The flavors at Paladar tend to be deep and savory, a tougher sell. Cuban food is probably easier to be in love with than fall in love with. In other words, you probably had to grow up with it to love it.

'ꀜThe flavor of my food comes from the country, not the city,'ꀝ Vargas says. 'ꀜWhen I moved here, I wanted to share my music, and now I want to share the flavor of my food.'ꀝ

He cooks it the way it was originally intended, for consumption by people who care the most about that very quality. And that, perhaps, is the difference between good food and food we call authentic or traditional. While one kind is not necessarily better than the other, the latter is more challenging to find in a new-world city like Seattle where traditions go to die.

Seattle is a forward-looking place whose greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Technology, commerce, art, music, food, it all gets reinvented here. The upside of this innovation is obvious: great software, interesting music, refined cuisine. But some things, like traditional cooking, fall through the newly formed cracks. When Olsen'ꀙs Scandinavian Foods closed last summer, relatively few noticed.

Traditional cooking thrives in places like Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, because it is borrowed from newcomers who are great in number. When the newcomers are few, concessions have to be made.

Vargas does offer two things on his menu that are not Cuban: quesadillas and tacos. Serving them, he says, makes him a little sad. But this is Seattle, after all, and business is business.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.