Day 9: Everyone's Lunch In Havana

Like I didn’t have enough heavy food already after lunch with tobacco maestro Alejandro Robania. But the day after my visit to his plantation, I went to lunch with some friends at a big outdoor restaurant called El Palenque in the Siboney neighborhood of Havana. This is the closest thing to a popular restaurant, considering lots of locals hang here. It’s super cheap where a Cuban sandwich can cost a couple bucks and an ice-cold beer about half that. I have been coming here for 10 years.

The cuisine is rustic and homey with lots of pork. Check out the split suckling pigs on the open grill in the video. They were not cooking this in my honor. It’s grilling away everyday for lunch and dinner. I have the crunchy skin on the plate in the video, which we ate as an appetizer with a couple of frosty Buccanero brews. Yummy.

I have eaten my weight in lechon with the Padrón family in Esteli, Nicaragua. Dave Savona is an aficionado of the stuff as well. But José Orlando Padrón, the partriarch of the great cigar company, is all too right when he says that “no place makes better lechon than Cuba.” Look at the video again my friends.

The main course was perfectly cooked juicy pork with black beans, rice and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. My mouth is watering now as I write this. Forget the three-star Michelin restaurants. This is the real deal.

We lit up some Cohiba Lanceros half way through the meal. I don’t normally like to smoke and eat, but I thought why not be decadent with my buddies. And it’s nice to be able to smoke just about wherever you wish in Cuba! I am so tired of the anti-smoking laws!! But I don’t have to tell you that.

I didn’t have a lighter, so the waiter offered to lend me his. One of my friends kept on saying not to use the lighter. I thought he was being a little obsessive about his own Dupont lighter. Do I really need to use his lighter?

In fact, it was for another reason. Many Cubans have their lighters filled with insecticide because lighter fluid is almost impossible to find. A quick light with these foul lighters is fine for cigarettes but it absolutely destroys the flavor of a fine cigar.

I learned my lesson. The Lancero was absolutely disgusting. It had a metallic, chemically flavor. So much for a good ending to a satisfying meal. But there will be other moments at El Palenque.
Rafael Molina Huntington,W.V. February 14, 2008 3:09pm ET
James,The wrapper is probably the most important part of the cigar. As far as I know, all Cuban premium cigars have shade grown wrappers. Why does Nicaragua (such as Padron),only use sun grown wrappers? Thanks...
James Suckling February 14, 2008 5:35pm ET
Some shade is grown in Nica as well. I have been on wrapper plantations of Nestor Placensia with shade grown. But some people such as the Padrons prefer the dark, rich and wrapper sun grown wrappers. I think it is producer's preference more than anything else.
Brad Goldman Columbus, Ohio February 15, 2008 2:17pm ET
James, I married into a Puerto Rican family and shareyour love of cooked pork (they call it "pernil") but they crisp the skin just the same and it is fantastic with rice & beans! I wanted to ask you about the smoking policy in Cuba. I thought there was a country-wide ban a few years ago? did they repeal it, relax the restrictions or is it not enforced? Oh we all wish the U.S. will do the same some day soon.Excellent videos, can't wait for the next one!Doc BG

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