T his is Cuban soul food. Home cooking. The meals and dishes and sides of plantains, rice, beans and stewed meat someone’s grandmother used to make, back when. In this case, Jesus Puerto’s grandmother.
“This is the food Jesus ate as a child,” says Michael Iamele, speaking of owner and co-founder Jesus Puerto. Iamele manages the original Soul de Cuba which opened in 2004 in New Haven (a second restaurant opened in Honolulu in 2006). “It’s what his grandmother made, his family. This is food that represents culture, spirituality, history.”
Iamele shares the story of the restaurant one late weekday afternoon, diners scattered here and there. He’s been tromping around town, in and out of meetings, and not the least bit worried about the humming operation of the restaurant. “We’re such a team here, the staff is family and they know and love the restaurant. And serving customers, that’s just like cooking for family.”
So keep family in mind, and don’t duck into Soul de Cuba, impossibly bright and cozy on the corner of Crown and High Streets, expecting white tablecloths, rum-based reductions or airy mousses of plantain—
Soul de Cuba
283 Crown St., New Haven (map)
Sun-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm
(203) 498-2822 | email@example.com
instead, for example, expect plantains straight-up fried, savory and green, comforting. The small shop reads more family kitchen—bar stools and small wooden tables collected close, photos of Puerto and generations of his family—than restaurant, with a menu to match.
In the afternoons, fresh grill-pressed cubano, fried fish or steak sandwiches are on offer, perfectly savory, crispy and belly-warming next to bright green salads. A ceviche of shrimp and scallops is sweet and fresh, punctuated with citrus, red onion and cilantro, and calamares fritos are crunchy, salty delights. Main courses are served (all day) on large, oval plates: scoops of chicken marinated in honey with garlic and onions; or braised, pan-seared or shredded beef and pork cooked in tomato or red wine sauces. Most are piled high with brown rice, plantains and onions—often too much. Or, more nearly, about the amount mom would expect you to eat.
“It’s not that every Cuban eats like this,” Iamele explains. “But Jesus’ family does. And
as people sit and eat this food, we hope they’ll think about the ancestry, the tradition that it’s steeped in.” Puerto’s great-grandfather, Cuban by way of Africa, settled outside Tampa in 1898. The family has preserved traditional cooking and concepts of spirituality since then.
Following that pulse, Puerto and Iamele (with partners and friends) have worked to develop a non-profit called Cubanakoa, through which they hope to connect people and cities to Cuban culture and heritage—with a focus on traditional food and energy sustainability. They took a group to Cuba in May for a week to meet with farmers and discuss agricultural techniques (and to eat, of course), and plan to take another group in December. “It’s about showing people that Cuba still does have some very valuable things to offer,” Iamele explains. “A lot of the crop production there is still wholly organic, the techniques are ancient and sustainable. And those processes still come with a strong sense of community.” Hawaii, the location of that sister Soul de Cuba restaurant, still imports 80 percent of its food. “That’s not sustainable, and we want to show them there’s another way.” They sponsored a Hawaiian master gardener for the May trip, hoping he’d learn from Cuban farmers and take the techniques back to Hawaii where Cubanakoa is also developing a 9-acre parcel of land for an organic farm.
“Who knows what the future brings for Cuba. But in some senses, we have a lot to learn from them,” Iamele says. “We can learn about food, about spirituality, about sustainability. We hope people will want to join us on this journey—even if only in some small part.”
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.