Written by guest author Noah Kopf
Photos by editor-in-chief Alara Degirmenci
At the intersection of High St and Crown St just a block away from campus, Soul de Cuba Cafe packs a whole world of stories into a small corner space. Stepping into the warmly-lit dining area is like walking into a museum, or maybe a well-loved family living room. The walls are adorned with a mix of colorful religious drawings, family photos both old and new, and a poem by José Martí — “Cultivo una Rosa Blanca,” in Spanish and English. Bottles of mojo sauce line the middle shelf of the bar. The centerpiece of the dining area is a tall, expressively-painted drum, complete with a pair of mallets resting beside it.
Before we even said hello to the manager Mike Iamele, I knew that Soul de Cuba Cafe was going to have a story to tell. Over the course of one and a half hours, four dishes, and two rounds of drinks, we learned about Soul de Cuba Cafe through a series of tales that spanned from Hawaii to Florida to Vietnam, from family anecdotes to national history, through stories that were by turns inspiring, comedic, and wise.
Jesus Puerto founded Soul de Cuba Cafe in 2004, after a career in international humanitarian development brought him to New Haven. Drawing on his Afro-Cuban family roots in Ybor City, Florida and Guanabacoa, Cuba, Jesus designed a restaurant that incorporated both cuisines, as well as elements from other places Jesus had traveled. However, Jesus’s career in building cross-cultural connections didn’t stop when he opened the restaurant! He’s since created ties with Hawaiian culinary traditions after opening a second location in Honolulu, and created the Cubanakoa Foundation to strengthen ties between Cuban and Polynesian societies. The ethos that Jesus follows, and the connections he’s made are evident in the dining area of Soul de Cuba Cafe, and most of all in the food!
We first tried the lechón asado, which was served with black beans and rice and a couple of thickly-cut grilled onions. The lechón asado was as moist as American barbeque, but with a distinct and meaty savoriness. The texture of the meat was remarkably varied — soft and pillowy bites followed crispy and chewy ones. Taking a bite with the still-crunchy onion gave the dish a powerful punch that cut through the meat. The magic of the dish came from the mojo sauce in the meat, which is a powerful combination of garlic, onion, orange, lime, vinegar, and other herbs and spices. Mike explained that mojo sauce is now an integral part of Cuban cuisine, but actually has its roots in West African dishes. When asked what the difference is between Cuban food and Afro-Cuban food, Jesus said “It’s all the same — it’s all rooted in African food.” He elaborated that many essential components of what is commonly called Cuban food are an inextricable mix of Spanish, West African, and Indigenous cuisines.
The moro rice, or rice with black beans, could have been a dish on its own. It was flavorful and satisfying, enhanced by little cubes of pork belly scattered throughout. Lastly, I cut into one of the plantains on the side. They were dense and sweet, but not oily. The plantains tasted great with the meat, but I ate almost all of my plantains by themselves in little bites in between the mean and rice.
According to Jesus, lechón asado is Soul de Cuba’s “celebratory dish. It’s our way of showing hospitality.” After just one course I was feeling the hospitality, and it was certainly worth celebrating. After I had taken a bite of everything on my plate, Mike came by with a red-labeled bottle in his hand. The label had Soul de Cuba’s own logo on it, so I prepared myself to try something special. Mike explained that the inspiration for the sauce is the Hawaiian chili pepper water, which the Soul de Cuba team combined with flavors from the Afro-Cubano mojo sauce. I poured out a healthy serving of “mojot,” a vibrant crimson-colored hot sauce. The sauce was citrusy and fruity with a long-lived spiciness, and after taking one bite of the lechón asado with the mojot, I made sure that I had at least a little bit of it on every bite. On the front of the bottle I noticed a brightly-colored depiction of a female face. Mike explained that I was seeing an Orisha, which is a divine embodiment of natural forces in Afro-Cubano religion. The bottles of mojot have drawings of Ochun, a feminine Orisha associated with water.
As I looked around the interior of Soul de Cuba, I started to see Orishas everywhere. There were Orishas on the walls — some of them drawn in more Christian styles, some of them drawn in more West African styles. There were Orishas on the bottles of Soul de Cuba’s sauces. And there was an Orisha painted on the drum that sat in the center of the dining room. Mike explained to us how West African religions had been brought to Cuba by enslaved peoples, and later were mixed with Christianity brought by Spanish settlers. As a Cuban of mixed African and European background, Jesus makes a point of celebrating cultural and religious traditions like these within his restaurant.
When I got up to fill my glass with water from a pitcher in the center of the dining room I was in for a big surprise — the water was not just water! Mike had poured some of Soul de Cuba’s mojito mix into the water cooler, which gave it a subtly sweet lime and mint flavor. It may have been the most refreshing water I’ve ever had! After tasting the diluted product, we had to investigate the source itself. We got two small frozen mojitos, which are actually a pandemic specialty — the machine to make them takes up a ton of space at the bar, and so only after Soul de Cuba’s transition to carry-out orders did they invest in the machine to make them. As far as silver linings go, it was a pretty sweet one. The mojito was powerful and zesty, and so perfect with the rich food we’d been having.
Mike next brought out a Cubano sandwich bursting with fillings. The Cubano sandwich is a product of the Cuban-American cigar maker community in Southern Florida, so it fits right in on the Soul de Cuba menu. The sandwich was meaty and layered, with a noticeable salami flavor. The bread, delivered freshly every day, had been compacted into a deliciously chewy base that stood up to the heft of the fillings.
As we ate the sandwiches, Mike told us the story of how he came to end up managing the Soul de Cuba Cafe. When Jesus was first building out the space, he became a regular customer at a hardware store Mike’s family owned. After Mike got to know Jesus and made a casual offer to help the restaurant get off the ground, Jesus let Mike know he was hired one day by calling him and telling him he was late to work! “Right away, we realized our similarities,” Mike said. “We were both influenced by our grandmas!”
After the Cubano sandwich we tucked into three different empanadas. The beef empanada was herby and aromatic, with capers and peppers inside. The chicken was a vibrant orange color with a unique tangy flavor. In the vegetable empanada I found mostly plantains, but with enough savoriness to balance out the sweetness. The crusts of the empanadas were addictive, and I kept dipping the ends into a spicy mayo-based sauce and nibbling off an inch or so until I found myself with almost nothing left on my plate.
Next, we tried the classic Soul de Cuba sangria. It went down ever-so-smooth, with noticeable apple and pear flavors in an appropriately New England twist. But the color was still a dark crimson, and the overall profile was more wine-based than spirit-based.
Lastly, Mike brought us a Soul de Cuba interpretation of the Monte Cristo sandwich (tentatively called the Monte Crista). It arrived with a rainbow on top, made with powdered sugar in a vivid palette of colors. Jesus describes this creation as a “celebration outside of tradition.” Like everything at Soul de Cuba, the colors meant something. “They’re about unity,” Mike said. “And also the stripes in the Soul de Cuba logo,” he added with a laugh. We dipped the sandwich in a sweet guava puree with strong notes of lime and honey. The bread, a sturdy French brioche, has been fried into a crispy flakiness. At that point I wasn’t sure whether I was eating dinner or dessert, but I was too full to give it much thought!
As we stacked up our empty plates and pushed back our chairs (and I began to run out of space in my notebook), Mike wound down his last story about cocktail culture in prohibition-era Cuba. But it wasn’t for lack of another tale to tell! “You could dig forever and not hit the bottom,” Mike said, and I instantly knew what he was talking about. The same features I noticed when I walked in — the photos, the drums, the poems, the paintings — now had a backstory that wove together into an infinite tapestry of connections. I knew the address of the Miami-based painter who put the face of Shango, a masculine Orisha, on the drum. I knew the name (Olga) and relation to Jesus (cousin) of individuals in the photos on the walls. I knew the recipe of Soul de Cuba’s mojo sauce — though you’ll have to buy a bottle to try it yourself. I felt fuller than I ever had, in both body and spirit.
I came to Soul de Cuba for the food. I was not expecting to learn so much about West African religion, Sri Lankan art, Hawaiian cuisine, or Spanish history. But the rich backstory between every object, flavor, and name made the entire experience much more than a meal. I’ll return to Soul de Cuba for the stories, to a magical little corner cafe that somehow, improbably, feels like the center of the world.