Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cuba - Julie's Restaurant and Bar

My family and I are standing in front of Julie’s Cuban restaurant on a small street in Toronto. It’s the closest we’re going to get to Cuba anytime soon. We walk in from the bitter cold and into the tiny eatery, the only other customers are a couple that look to be on a date. The hostess is friendly but concerned we don’t have reservations. After a few confused moments she pulls two small tables together, even though I spot plenty of tables for four, and we are seated. I can’t imagine why we would need reservations. It’s a Sunday night and we just left the mall where, I swear, half of Toronto is doing their holiday shopping.

An older woman with a pile of blonde hair swept up on her head welcomes us with a warm smile. I explain to her that we want very typical Cuban dishes and she happily points them out on the menu. For appetizers she suggests Corn Frituras and Yuca Fritas. Kevin says, ““Kids, mommy boiled yuca at home, remember?”

For our main course the woman suggests we get Ropa Vieja, shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce, black beans, rice and plantains. “Mommy’s made fried plantains too,” Kevin says. Yes, mommy has made a lot of things these days!

We also order the Enchilado de Camarones, rice and shrimp with roasted red pepper. For dessert the woman recommends Tres Leches and Chocolate Rum Flan, both are to die for.

As we’re eating, I notice people are piling in. The few tables the restaurant has to offer are quickly getting occupied.

The restaurant has a homey quality about it. White lights line the outside and inside giving the restaurant a cozy ambiance. We figure the restaurant had once been a townhouse, judging by the neighborhood and the old townhouses surrounding it. It’s sort of hidden away, a little gem, a bit of Havana on a cold night. One side of the room is a shelf covered with photographs and memorabilia from Cuba. Next to us is a large cigar ashtray that prompts an explanation to the kids about Cuban cigars.

“Why are they so special?” the kids ask.

“Because they’re really good cigars” I say remembering how I had snuck in a Cuban cigar for my stepfather when I had gone to Tijuana. “You can’t get them in the U.S.”


“Because the U.S. government doesn’t like Cuba and won’t trade with them.” The kids still look confused and finally I say, “It’s all very complicated.”

Truthfully, I don’t understand it myself.

When I first arrived in Canada it sounded strange to hear about Cuban vacations and read travel ads in the newspaper promoting all inclusive vacation packages to Cuba. It’s jarring to the ears when your whole life you’ve viewed Cuba as this non-accessible mysterious place where that Fidel Castro rules.

One day I told my hairdresser that I wanted to go to Cuba. He called over a Cuban woman who worked for the salon and told her my dilemma: I’m an American who wants to visit her country.

“You can go!” the woman assured me. “They welcome tourists. The Cuban officials don’t care that you are an American. They won’t stamp your passport.”

It’s attempting. It angers me that I can’t loll on a Cuban beach with my Canadian friends. President Obama has said he wants a new beginning with Cuba but has not lifted the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo against the island nation.

At Julie’s, we scarf down our meal and thank the nice lady with the blonde upswept hair. The restaurant is full now. As we leave I look back at the other patrons who look like they’ve been here before, they seem at ease, comfortable with where they are. We step out into the frosty air. It’s cold and dark as we walk to our car and the white lights from the restaurant fade from view. Back to reality, but still dreaming of hot Havana nights.

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