Fort Lauderdale residents in search of good Cuban food have, over the years, been pretty clear on how to do that. You get in the car, head south for 30 or 40 miles and choose from the many options.
Guillermo Pernod has no problem with that. But, he suggests, fans of Miami’s distinctly Cuban-American cuisine might also want to try some other flavors of the island. The chef, restaurateur and cookbook author has for almost two decades brought the modern, regional cuisines of the island to Americans via his Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar concept. From the first one in Philadelphia to others in Washington DC, Atlantic City, Orlando and now Las Olas Boulevard, the restaurants bring what Pernod feels are the island’s somewhat overlooked regional cuisines – dishes that originated far from Havana and that might confound expectations of what Cuban food should be.
“It has a lot of inspiration from the food that’s being served in Cuba now,” Pernod says. “For the last seven years or so the cuisine of Cuba has developed, evolved into something a lot more modern. I think it’s because the Cubans have a lot more access to the internet and they’re starting to receive a lot more tourists than ever before.”
While Cuban chefs are experimenting with the new, Pernod sees what’s happening as also steeped in some specific regional histories.
“All over Cuba you see this fantastic new cuisine that is based on the traditional cuisine and using the local ingredients of each region,” Pernod says. “I have taken those inspirations and brought them into the restaurant using native ingredients. The menu has a lot of … Cuba now. It’s a window to Cuba right now.”
For example, the eastern port city of Baracoa has over the years been influenced by its geographic proximity to and immigration from Haiti. As befits a port city, they also cook with methods and ingredients from other places; the result is something that’s not always associated with Cuban food. “They cook with chocolate,” Pernod says. “They cook with coconut – a lot of coconut milk in that area. And they also have almonds.”
Pork dishes made with chocolate and chilis can seem almost like Mexican fare. And there’s something else that’s more like the cuisine of Mexico or elsewhere in the Caribbean than what’s commonly associated with Cuba.
“In addition to that, the food could be spicy,” he says. “You find surprisingly spicy food in many recipes.” Callaloo stew with habanero peppers in a shell made out of squash is not something you’ll typically find in Havana.
Meanwhile, he says, you can concoct a solid vegetarian menu using solely popular dishes from the west of the island. They also cook with charcoal from the woody plant marabu.
“We’ve imported marabu from Colombia to make the flavors more authentic,” Pernod says.
If he’s excited about where the food is from, Pernod is also excited about where it’s going. Delays followed by the pandemic mean his group was almost three years behind on opening the Las Olas restaurant. But he’s glad to be here now.
“We’ve found it to be a very versatile community,” he says. “People from all over the world go to Fort Lauderdale. We found it to be a fascinating place, and we thought it would be a great place to open.
“Basically, we are surrounded by a ton of Italian restaurants so we thought, let’s do something different.”
The Dish: Pollo y Waffle
Fried crispy boneless chicken thigh, quinoa waffle, and mango salsa with dark rum-molasses syrup.
For the salsa
- 3 lbs mango, 1/4″ diced (can use frozen)
- 1 tbs fresh ginger, microplaned
- 1.5 oz jalapeños, seeded and small diced
- 5 oz Spanish onion, small diced and washed in cold water
- 1 cup mangos, blended
- 2 tbs honey
- 6 tbs fresh lime juice
- 2 tsp cilantro, chopped
- Mix all the ingredients and refrigerate for 2 hours.
For the waffles
- 2 whole eggs
- 3 tbs unsalted butter, melted
- 1.5 cups milk
- 1 tbs sugar
- 1.5 cups all‑purpose flour
- 1 tbs baking powder
- ¾ tsp salt
- 1.5 cups quinoa, cooked tender
Place eggs in a bowl and whisk until pale yellow. Add the melted butter, milk and sugar. Whisk together with eggs. In a separate mixing bowl, sift flour with baking powder.
For the syrup
- 2 cups pure maple syrup
- 1 cup dark rum
- ¼ cup of molasses
Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Put aside and keep warm. Slowly mix the wet ingredients with dry while whisking. Rest mixture for 20 minutes before use.
For the chicken
- 4 large chicken thighs, boneless skin on
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 3 whole eggs
- 2 tbs Tabasco
- 1 tsp. chives, chopped
- ½ tsp fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 tsp chopped garlic
For the flour
- 3 cups all‑purpose flour
- 2 tsp paprika
- 3 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
Pat chicken thighs dry with a paper towel. Place chicken in a large bowl with salt, then cover and let sit for 2 hours.
In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs and hot sauce, the herbs and the garlic. In a second large bowl, whisk together flour and the spices. Place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet, then begin coating chicken. Dip each piece of chicken first in the flour mixture, then in the buttermilk, then again in the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. Transfer to wire rack, then repeat until all chicken is coated. Meanwhile, fill a large cast iron or heavy bottom pan with oil until it’s about 2″ high. Heat over medium-high until oil reaches about 350 F. You want to cook the chicken around 325 F, but the temperature will drop when you add the chicken.
When oil is hot, carefully add the 4 pieces of chicken, depending on the size of your pan, and cook, turning every 1–2 minutes, until all chicken is a golden-brown color and has an internal temperature of 160 F, about 6–7 minutes per batch. Transfer chicken to a clean wire rack; keep warm.