14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, 17 September 2023 — The cartwheel in front of La Carreta is back where it used to be. The restaurant had been closed for years until last June, when it reopened as a privately owned restaurant. The cartwheel itself sat under a tree at the corner of 21st and K streets — half buried in the ground, in the heart of Havana’s Vedado district — until it was removed in November 2022. Now it is back, intact and recently restored, atop a new polished sidewalk.
To be honest, neither the cartwheel nor the establishment is anything like the ruin the place became when it was in state hands. Closed nearly seven years ago after a long, slow decline, the building was bricked up in March 2022. It made for grim sight at the time.
The wheel that served as its emblem was removed from the site six months later. At the time, the rumor that it had been stolen spread like wildfire on social media. Shortly thereafter, in November, the interior was demolished so that renovation work could begin.
People living near the restaurant, located a few yards from the iconic Coppelia ice cream emporium, watched construction work move forward at full throttle, especially in June. When asked about the fate of the well-known restaurant, the construction crew was straightforward: “It will have the same name but it will be privately owned.”
Before the work was completed in mid-June, food was being sold from a counter on the side. The quality of the service and the products – natural fruit juices with no added sugar, for example – was a rarity for the island’s depressed services sector.
Once opened, it more than met expectations. “Just walking inside is wonderful. The climate, the aroma, the service,” observes Ariel, who has been a regular customer since La Carreta’s renovations were complete. “It didn’t look like Cuba,” jokes his girlfriend Martha. “And it has been very successful. At first, it was empty, but it’s getting harder and harder to get a table. It’s always full!”
The question any first-time visitor asks is, “Who is behind this new operation?” An easy question to answer since the owner is on the premises every day, welcoming customers with a smile. He is Obel Martinez, who also runs the Mojito Mojito bar in Plaza Vieja, Havana’s historic center.
According to those who frequent La Carreta, civility is very important to Martinez. “He is a very proper man,” says Ariel. “Once I heard him tell the employees that you have to treat the customer well, that if someone comes in badly dressed, for example, you can’t tell him that he is badly dressed. You have to do it in some other way. Let him come in and see the place. I mean, that should be normal but in this country it’s not.”
The restaurant is decorated in a rustic style, with waiters dressed like Texans, politely welcoming guests. Diners are also often entertained by a professional musical trio who sing traditional Cuban and Mexican songs.
It’s true that the prices are not within everyone’s reach,” admits Martha, “but the portions are large.” As an example, she mentions the starter: “picando con guajiros” — it includes croquettes, stuffed tostones, fried taro, chicharrones, cassava bread and chunks of tamale — for 1,200 pesos. “With that and some fruit juice, you’re full,” confirms Ariel. “And the desserts are wonderful.” These range from ice cream, for 250 pesos, to more refined pastries such as the lemon and cream sandwich, for 600.
The couple describe how Obel Martinez once told them that his intention was not to do “gourmet cuisine” with small portions because “we Cubans want to eat well.”
Places like this, like Mojito Mojito, always raise suspicions. How was Obel Martinez able to set up shop in these desirable enclaves and become a successful businessman? Neither Ariel nor Martha nor any La Carreta customers questioned by 14ymedio had the slightest complaint. “We can’t say anything bad. I wish all privately owned restaurants were like this and didn’t act like they were doing you a favor.”
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