14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, October 17, 2021 — The almost twenty calls made the previous day to reserve a table at El Cochinito suggested it would be a complicated lunch. Upon arrival, it was impossible to ignore the unusual scene of a woman sweeping the entrance to the restaurant with a giant squeegee.
While we waited for the employees to finish their staff meeting, a few people were lining up at the outdoor cafe to buy bread with cheese and soft drinks, all to go. One employee had the arduous task of walking back and forth from the cafe to the kitchen — I estimate about thirty to forty yards roundtrip — every time a customer placed an order.
El Cochinito, a once glittering, busy and popular state-run restaurant, centrally located on 23rd Avenue in the heart of Vedado, had reopened its doors for in-person dining. The requisite 24-hour reservation can be made by phone or at the restaurant.
Let’s see, my love,” said the hostess, who could not find my name on the reservation list. “Don’t worry. It’s not the first time this has happened. Give me your name, I’ll write it down, then we can seat you,” she says, embarrassed.
The restaurant consists of a somewhat hidden room with a few tables, another cooler, more open room, a garden patio that wraps around an old, leafy tree, and a bar. El Cochinito’s wait staff, most of whom are women, is particularly cordial and professional.
The same cannot be said for the variety or quality of the food. Prices are ridiculously high and more akin to those of a privately owned restaurant.
It was hard for me to understand why the garden patio, which has an ample number of tables (a plus if you are trying to prevent the spread of Covid) was closed to the public, especially on an afternoon when the weather in the capital was so pleasant.
A worse surprise was the annoyingly loud noise of a power tool (possibly a drill), which served as the intermittent accompaniment throughout lunch and drowned out the very tasteful music, at an appropriate decibel level, playing in the background.
Besides having few items, the menu did not provide enough information. Serving sizes in grams were not indicated, forcing staff to approximate those sizes with their hands.
Then came the culinary disaster. I was dumbfounded when, after a 25-minute wait, the starter course, picadera Cochinita, arrived: three absolutely tasteless croquettes made of fried dough with salt sprinkled on top, two balls of stale cheese and two of chorizo. All for the “modest” price of 70 pesos.
Not much was on the beverage menu. The only option for customers who do not drink alcohol was lemonade frappé, which had a taste so intensely sour it stung the tongue. A tap beer of average quality was 25 pesos. A bottle of Cristal beer and the orange soda, also in a bottle, were warm. One customer complained to the manager that his bottle of beer had so much foam in it that, after two minutes, its volume had shrunk by half.
Among the main courses, the grilled lobster, or enchilado, for 100 pesos stood out. Unfortunately, the only diners who might be drawn to it would be those who did not know that the meat comes from the head, legs and antennae. “People think that for 100 pesos they are going to get a lobster tail, but it is not like that. That’s why I always warn customers who order it,” said the waitress. “It’s actually made up of by-products, as if the customer wouldn’t notice.”
The restaurant is known for its pork dishes, which are prepared five different ways. I decided on the masas fritas, marinated, deep-fried pork cubes, and roast pork ribs, at 120 pesos each. The masas were dry and flavorless, without a drop of pork fat, only overly lean meat. The pork ribs were more of the same but with cold, stiff and lumpy barbecue sauce served on the side.
The side dishes cost extra and also left much to be desired. The white rice was skimpy and, when black beans came mixed with it, they were on the verge of being uncooked. The sweet potato with mojo was the only root vegetable on the menu, and the mixed salad featured only cucumber, lettuce and beans.
To top it all off, the salt was presented on small plates because there were no salt shakers — indentations from the fingers of previous customers were visible on the short white piles — and the cruets were in storage because they had to “stretch the oil.”
Jam with cheese was the only dessert option, which I skipped because it was the same cheese used in the appetizer.
Coffee before the check was not an option simply because they did not have any.
With drinks, appetizers, main courses and dessert, the bill came to between 700 and 1,000 pesos for two people, which seemed excessive to me given that there was no relationship between the quality and the cost of each dish.
This state-run restaurant has not regained the renown that it had more than thirty years ago, when it was a benchmark of Cuban cuisine.
As I was leaving, a foreign medical student, who did not have a reservation, was asking the doorman to let him in. After being told no,”because all the tables are reserved, the young man pointed to the many empty tables in the patio, to which the doorman replied that seating there was not allowed, without further explanation.
I hurried home; I could feel a bit of indigestion coming on.
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