Monday, May 10, 2010

A Great Cuban Dinner

This last Saturday was spent in Glades County Florida where I participated in the North American Migration (birds) Count. That will be the subject of the next post.

Friday night before the count I crashed in Clewiston, Florida, a not-so-bad town on the southwest shore of Lake Okeechobee, about 90 miles north of Miami. The local Chamber of Commerce has dubbed Clewiston "America's Sweetest Town" because of the super abundance of highly subsidized sugar that is grown all over the place around the south shore of Okeechobee. Its also the recipient of huge doses of pesticides several times yearly AND tons of fertilizer. No wonder there are huge algal blooms way down stream in Florida Bay. However I digress.

I spent Friday night at the Best Western of Clewiston because there were no Hiltons or Hampton Inns in town and I was not about to stay in a Holiday Inn Express! The Best Western is a very nice alternative to a Hilton/Hampton. On checking in I asked the person behind the counter if there was any place in town to get good Cuban food. Immediately she recommended Julio's Cafe Tropical, about one mile back to the east from the Best Western.

From the outside Julio's looks like a complete and total dive. Inside is not much better. There is no ambiance to the place at all. There are no decorations or paintings or anything else on the walls except paint and the table I sat at rocked and rolled like a California earthquake. But experience has taught me that its usually in dives that you get the best food. Experience was right again Friday night in Clewiston.

I asked the waitress what she would recommend and without hesitation she said to go for the cerdo asado. I took her recommendation and in the end had one of the best meals I've ever eaten anywhere. It ranked right up there with lamb tajine in Ourzazate Morocco, and Phad Thai from a street vendor in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was that freaking good.

The meal, pictured above, consisted of a "salad" (lettuce and a hunk of tomato) and pork on one plate. Then came the mound of arroz amarillo (yellow rice), frijoles negras (black beans) and murdos (fried plantain). Not to be forgotten was the third plate that contained excellent, hot, and fresh Cuban bread. It was as good or better as any I have eaten in Havana or anywhere else I've traveled in Cuba.

The beer selection here was abysmal - Budweiser (which I don't consider to be beer!) and Corona. I went for the Corona and then went for a second one. The dinner was $5.99 (yes, you read that correctly, five dollars 99 cents!) and with two beers the total bill was $9.40. For all that food and it was excellent - simply excellent. Had I been in a Cuban restaurant in Washington DC that same meal would have easily cost $45.00.

When I walked into the Cafe Tropical I quickly saw that the place was packed with patrons - and I was the only Anglo present. This is always a good indication that the food is great and I was not let down. The waitress doted over me the entire time I was there, in part, I think because I was an Anglo who openly (and correctly!) spoke Spanish to her. I think it surprised her actually.

At the end of this meal I tipped the waitress $5.60 and walked out the door having experienced what certainly ranks up there as one of the finest meals I've ever had. Just like the Phad Thai I had on the street in Chiang Mai that cost me the US equivalent of 50 CENTS!! the price of a meal is no indication of how good it will be. Cafe Tropical proved me correct on that observation once again.

There are few reasons to be in Clewiston other than maybe passing through on US Highway 27 on your way to or from Miami. However if you ever find yourself there, you have no excuse whatsoever for not stopping by Julio's Cafe Tropical for the best meal you'll have in a very long time.