Perceptions of Cuba in terms of food (and many other things) are somewhat polarised. At its best it is viewed as operating to fuse Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisines and at its worst it is seen as plain and quite unimaginative (with only the basics in plentiful supply – rice and beans – it can be difficult to be imaginative I suppose).
The vibrancy of Cuban cuisine can, however, be seen with the food of the large Cuban communities in Florida and when ingredients are plentiful it is regarded by many as classic fusion food. Cuban dishes like ropa vieja, moro y cristiano and arroz con pollo, whilst often from humble origins, can in the right hands really pack a flavour punch. On top of this there is frequent use of non potato starch products, liked plantains (fried and often stuffed) and cassava/yuca, which gives the cuisine a tropical feel.
Then there is the Cubano (mixto), one of the truly great (and most abused) sandwiches of the world.
This brings me to Old Havana in Cardiff, which has recently taken over the unit on St Mary Street where the now defunct Hashery (who had “Cubanos” of a sort) use to be located. Starting out in Swansea, this is their second branch.
The frontage on the High Street represents a quite considerable change from that of the Hashery.
Odd sort of set up with a big covered “outside” area, which includes a old style Cadillac parked up, before you go inside.
Inside it was much bigger than I remember the Hashery
with some comfy booths.
Nice enough, if a bit “kitsch” Cuban theme park – esque, I thought.
Oddly, when we arrived (12.45 on a Tuesday), only drinks (no food) menus were on the table. We had to ask a member of staff for one (my eye sight not operating to allow easy viewing of the menu on on the TV screen above the bar, without being only 3 inches from the screen).
The main menu seems to be rather lacking in terms of Cuban classics, with no sign of ropa viejo, arroz con pollo, empanadas or fried plantains. They do have moro y cristiano (the black beans representing the Moors and the white rice representing the Christians), which is a staple of all Cuban tables and any Cuban restaurant.
Seemingly lots of dishes with references to “Cuban” in them, such as Cuban style slaw (I am not sure what “Cuban style” actually means, but “style” as part of a description of food all too often mean it ain’t anything of the sort in my experience ) and Cuban lamb skewers (odd inclusion, Welsh – Cuban fusion perhaps, as lamb is a meat that I am not sure feature at all in Cuban cuisine, where meats eaten are generally pork and chicken – with beef as a rare treat) rather than actual Cuban dishes. Then there is on the menu the “well those aren’t Cuban at all” dishes (as far as I am aware) like “cheesy garlic bread” and “nachos”.
What they do have is the Cubano, a classic of the sandwich world which is made up of roast pork (usually, and in my view essentially, pre-marinated in mojo – a sauce made of garlic, olive oil/pork fat and bitter orange juice – before being roasted), proper (not plastic) smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard (and sometimes – the Tampa variation – salami) all encased in hot pressed Cuban bread (like French bread, but generally lighter and crisper in nature with it being made with lard).
This also features on the lunch time menu (named “Cuban Luncheon” – that makes me think of Spam for some reason), which offers a sandwich, plus a soft drink for a rather confusing £9.95*/£8.95 (the extra £1 requires small print reading skills – I think it is for the option of adding tortilla chips and salsa).
Whoever came up with the name for the vegan friendly sarnie of “Old Vegana” need to be taken outside, sat in the Cadillac, and given a jolly good talking to! This is not least because “V” tends to be pronounced closer to a “B” in Spanish (including the Cuban derivation as I understand it), so unless you just point the meaning is sort of lost.
I went for the Cubano as I like a good one, being a sandwich that at its beat is up there with the world’s greatest sandwiches (and at its worst is an abomination – I did see a Spam version on the internet, oh the horror!!). The key to getting it right is the use of proper, top quality, ingredients.
Here it came with a tagline of ” The taste of Cuba”, but includes salami which could be viewed as a controversial addition and one that could be argued to make the sandwich more “A taste of Tampa“. I believe the denizens of Tampa and Miami get very aerated over the addition of salami (Tampa in favour, Miami very much against) in terms of a Cubano.
What arrived was pleasant enough,
but had a number of niggly issues. First off the bread used seemed to be Italian bread as opposed to Cuban bread (which looks like a wide French baguette – not a biggie if you aren’t a place that trades on offering true Cuban flavours, but….), secondly, the roast pork seemed to be lacking any time in a mojo marinade and both it and the salami elements of the sarnie were a bit on the mean side quantity wise and, thirdly, the cheese was nowhere near melted enough for my tastes (meaning it was missing the essential, to my mind, melty gooeyness of a good Cubano).
The plus points were a decent amount of pickle (cut a bit thick I thought), mustard and swiss cheese.
It was a decent enough panini/toastie, but didn’t really elevate itself to what amounts (in my eyes) to a really good cubano.
My friend had the Cuban club sandwich, which didn’t seem to have any particularly Cuban (or even Caribbean) elements to it (he said it was about as Cuban as he was). He said it was ok, but was just like pretty much any other toasted sarnie he had had.
Both came with tortilla chips and a perfectly nice salsa.
On the drinks front it was a work day lunch and there wasn’t much on the booze front to entice me from my usual mid-week abstinence.
I am not much of a (Caribbean) cocktail drinker, as me and rum had a violent disagreement in my youth, which we have never quite been able to get over.
Much of the drinks menu was, thus, off limits/of no interest to me. The wine list (much more my bag) was for the most part a “by the numbers” number (Sauv. Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco),
with some quite leerly mark ups (the zindanfel rosé retails at under £6 a bottle and is on the list here at £21 and the Faustino Rivero retails at £6.99 and is on the list at a whopping, and frankly ridiculous, price of £33).
Beers on offer aren’t Cuban (no Cristal, Bucanero or Mayabe as far as I could see), with pretty bog standard Sol, Becks and Heineken seeming to be the lager options.
I decided to go for a soft drink and on top of the usual suspects there was an odd focus on (Austrian) Red Bull (3 different types, who knew, including the revolting sounding “tropical edition” red bull and a sugar free one 🤔, that makes about as much sense to me as a caffeine free red bull).
None of the mocktails appealed, so I asked for the Big Tom Spicy Tomato Juice. After a lot of rummaging about behind and under the bar they stated they didn’t have any (despite it being on the menu). I decided, reluctantly, on a Ting ( Jamaican rather than Cuban, but close enough I suppose), which came as part of the lunch time deal (but didn’t feature on the menu – I asked for it as I spied it in one of the chillers behind the bar – perhaps there was other off menu stuff hiding in the booze fridges).
Based on the “Cuban Luncheon” offer, I can’t say I found the food particularly Cuban, but it tasted ok and was filling. What it wasn’t was particularly exciting. Whilst certainly not “communist bloc”, I didn’t get any of the “Caribbean melting pot” that Cuban food can deliver.
I think it is probably more of an evening venue (we were the only people in there on a mid-week lunch time) and perhaps the “Cuban” aspect is more pronounced in the evening (with rum flowing and a bit of Cuban jazz playing, hopefully with the late great Rubén González tinkling the ivories), but to me it was a little bit run of the mill at lunch time.
They still seem to be bedding down processes etc. as we had to ask for food menus (only drinks menus being on the table) and ordering off the lunch menu (with the deal) caused significant confusion (as did the request for tomato juice, despite it being on the menu) as the tills were seemingly not set up with the offer. Hopefully this will be sorted.
Would I go back? Hmmm, probably not. It doesn’t deliver the hoped for (what I regard as) classic Cuban cuisine ( I went more in hope than expectation if I am honest) or even interesting interpretations of it. Whilst the food we had was OK and filling, if you are looking for proper Cuban food this place probably won’t hit the mark.
What we had were perfectly acceptable toasted sarnies, but that was all. There are, in my view, better way to spend around a tenner at lunch time in town and I think they may struggle to get the punters in of a lunch time on the basis of the current offering (cheaper and/or better offers in town of a lunchtime elsewhere).
Address: 6 High Street, Cardiff, CF10 1AW
Tel: 029 2111 1430
Twitter: @old_havana_swa (seems to be only one account for Swansea branch)
Opening hours: Open all week 11.30 – 02.00. The “Cuban luncheon” offer is available every day from 12.00 till 15.00 as far as I can see.