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The real deal
By REBECCA MANDEL
14/02/2013
With its music, mojitos, flavorful dishes and cigar room, Alma de Cuba provides an authentic taste of the colorful Caribbean island.
 
As an olah of five years, I’ve come to expect mediocre ethnic food (non-Mizrahi), but I always jump at the chance to try a new restaurant, hoping for a good find. I was especially eager to try Alma de Cuba, as I haven’t been able to fill my craving for Cuban food since college, where my best friend, a proud “Jubano” (Cuban Jew), introduced me to the world of yucca and other delicious specialties synonymous with the Caribbean island.

Alma de Cuba, located on Ha’arba’a Street in Tel Aviv, is a creation of Juan Luis Gonzalez, a native Cuban who followed his Israeli wife back to the Holy Land. The bar and restaurant décor is spot-on with its cool yet gritty look without trying too hard to be trendy. Music blares from TV screens showing the latest Cuban video clips of people dancing, giving patrons a taste of the Havana street scene. For me, however, there was some dissonance in the décor in some parts of the restaurant. It was likely due to my distaste of Castro, acquired by spending time in Miami. The images of the dictator on the walls in the form of graffiti felt a bit too kitsch and detracted from the otherwise special vibe that expressed local flavor without trying too hard to adapt to another country style palate.

I quickly forgot about this gripe when my dining companion and I were served excellent mojitos – in my opinion, the best in Israel. With the bar filling up quickly, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones happy to find a place with great cocktails. Gonzalez explained that he also brought the bartender from Cuba to ensure fidelity to Cuba’s drink of choice. The charming bartender displayed a joie de vivre, dancing in between concocting cocktails, which was addictive and a pleasure to see.

Our drinks were served with beef empanadas accompanied by aioli. The taste was explosive in its deliciousness. I repeated in awe after each bite that the dough had the perfect consistency, with a perfect filling-to-dough ratio. I prematurely decided that this would surely be the best dish of the evening, until the waitress – originally from Venezuela – brought us a plate of platanos (green banana plaintains) and fried yucca, an exquisitely tasty (when prepared properly) plant from the agave family. The two dishes were served with a side of sour cream, which was a perfect balance to the impeccable fried delicacies.

For the main dish we had ropa vieja, which means “old clothes” in Spanish. One explanation the waitress offered for the name was that the shredded beef in tomatobased sauce was slow cooked for so long, that it literally falls off and looks like a pile of, well, old clothes. I’ve heard a couple of other theories, but I digress. What’s important is that it was truly the perfect dish due to its simplicity yet intensity in flavor. The beef was served with a side of rice and black beans, seasoned exactly the way I remembered home-cooked Cuban food to be. The second dish we had was less of a home run – a type of stir-fried pork with mushrooms. While the meat was lacking in creativity, the smokiness of the mushrooms was a welcome surprise and a treat.

After our meal, we visited the private cigar room upstairs that is used for parties and is ideal for bachelor/bachelorette parties or a birthday event. Stocked with its own bar and a lifetime supply of Cuban cigars, it is a fun place to celebrate with a large group of friends.

Overall, I would highly recommend Alma de Cuba due to its excellent food and local Cuban flavor. The restaurant is a popular spot for the single 40-50 crowd. It is a bit pricy, given that the portions are not very big. However, for Israel the prices are well worth it for the taste and authenticity of the food. I would gladly return there for another mojito and the opportunity to discover more Cuban dishes.

The writer was a guest of the restaurant.

Alma de Cuba
Not kosher
16 Ha’arba’a, Tel Aviv
(03) 523-4894



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