Cigar Aficionado

Hidden Gems

This weekend I took my wife and son out for breakfast at one of our favorite places. It’s a tiny donut shop called Speedy Donuts that has been in business for 41 years, almost as long as I’ve been alive, and despite driving by the place literally hundreds of times it was only a few years ago when I finally went in for a bite.

The outside is plain and the inside is old. A menu board, which was once colored white but has now taken on a rich patina of coffee with too much cream, lists the simple offerings, each laid out with black press-on letters that were last changed years ago. Egg sandwiches. Pancakes. Western omelets. The soda fountain still has Diet Rite.

There’s a counter that seats a dozen and, depending on when you go and who has moved things around, about five tables. The counter is the busy spot, and behind it is where the magic takes place. The coffee is passable, but that’s not why I come here. Speedy Donuts makes very simple food using very simple ingredients. Behind the grill, flipping eggs and  flapjacks, is a man who is as comfortable there as Carlos Santana is with a six string. Butter is used copiously. The bacon is thick and crispy, and the home fries are always perfect, having been cooked for a long, long time with just the right dusting of oregano. The woman behind the counter, round and smiling and always attentive, serves breakfast the way breakfast should always be. And when you’re done? If you have the room, there are the donuts made fresh on the premises, not in some factory miles away, as you might find in a chain donut store. Every time I’m there I see the same old man at work, and every so often he reaches into the donut bin and breaks one apart to check his work. He takes a taste, and nods approvingly before heading into the back to make more.

After tucking into my plate of eggs (over easy), potatoes, bacon and well-buttered rye toast I showed a modicum of restraint and passed on the donut, watching my son chew his way through a fresh one smeared with chocolate and dusted with sprinkles. His smile made my day.

Speedy Donuts is a place I never would have visited if not for the insistent recommendation from a foodie friend of mine who argued (correctly, as it turns out) that this dive is the source of breakfast heaven. Sitting there while I finished up, I thought back to a trip to Cuba I took in 2000. I was standing inside the Club Habana cigar store in the Miramar area of Havana, standing in a humidor brimming with all manner of Cuban cigars. What to buy?

I had no desire to go the big-name route and buy Cohiba Robustos, Montecristo No. 2s or Partagas Serie D No. 4s. Those cigars are benchmark smokes, great Cuban cigars, but they’re so well-known that every visitor to that shop would undoubtedly have picked over those boxes first. Sure enough, the ones I saw were all very young, current year production smokes. I was looking for something most people would overlook, boxes that had sat for awhile, the hidden gems of the cigar humidor.

After a careful search, I found my prize in a small stack of white boxes with brown and copper highlights: Flor de Rafael Gonzalez Petit Coronas. They were three years old at the time, and only $57 for a box of 25, or $2.28 per cigar. Impossible to ignore, I bought two boxes.

The wrappers were a bit rumpled, and the cigars were a long way from being gorgeous, but they tasted delicious. Were they the finest cigars I’ve ever smoked? Not by a long shot. But they were the finest $2.28 cigars I’ve ever smoked. I smiled each time I lit one up. I wish I had the patience to have saved a few, but today, 10 years later, both boxes are gone.

The next time you’re in a cigar shop, in Havana or elsewhere, don’t be afraid to poke around where others don’t go. And that restaurant that has been around forever but just doesn't look so appealing from the outside? Take a chance and pop in. You never know what you might find.

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"I do the same thing." —July 20, 2010 11:49 AM