We have guitarist Ry Cooder to thank for much in this world: the mandolin part on the Rolling Stones’ Love in Vain, the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, his transcendent collaboration with Malian artist Ali Farka Touré on Talking Timbuktu and, indirectly, Cubana Social, a new restaurant and bar on North 6th Street in Williamsburg. It was, after all, Cooder’s 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club, a collaboration with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, that restored to Cuba the burnished slow glow of a country stuck in the molasses of the past. The Cuba that emerged from the album and its swaying son rhythm is languorous, romantic and irresistible. It’s no wonder that when Christina Bouza, a manager at the bar Public Assembly (incidentally, the freedom of which is not guaranteed in Cuba), decided to open an adjoining restaurant and bar, she mined Cooder’s Cuba. On a stretch of what is arguably Williamsburg’s original hipster strip, Cubana Social represents much that is wrong with Williamsburg as an idea, but much more of what is delicious.
Call me an old coot but the sanitized honey-dipped diorama of a Communist country, bathed in a golden light by Edison bulbs and assiduously aged tile, is a problem.
Ostalgie works to the extent that it does only when you’ve been in the ost. I’d wager the number of diners at Cubana Social who have actually been to Cuba is somewhere between zero and the one kid who studied abroad there for a semester and who now can’t stop peppering his conversation with Cuban slang, much to the annoyance of his friends. To be completely fair, Cubana Social bills itself as "1930′s Havana meets Brooklyn" so it might not be ostalgie Latina as much as a romanticization of the Cuba of Fulgencio Batista, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and general strikes. It’s still problematic and, I daresay, indicative of an irresponsible and unrelenting appetite for selective appropriation that mars much of post modernity. Fuck yeah.
But then again, the food at Cubana Social is delicious. Really delicious. It is, in fact, delicious enough to dismiss any caviling about post-modernity and geopolitics as pretentious gobbledygook. In a neighborhood awash with classic American comfort food— fried this, poached egg over that, crispy ear inferno—Cubana Social’s menu, which includes the done-to-death Cuban sandwich ($9) and roast pork in Mojo sauce ($12), as well as delicious plantanos ($4), served
A drink named after Cuban singer Celia Cruz and a traditional Cuban sandwich salty or sweet—is at once refreshing and deeply satisfying. Every country has its poor man’s food, often off-cuts of meat braised to tenderness and seasoned to perfection. Brazil has its feijoada. Venezeula has carne mechada. Cuba has ropa vieja. At Cubana Social, the dish—which is stewed steak but translates into "old clothes"—is served properly unfussy and tender with a few strips of crisp plantains and a pile of black beans and rice on the side ($8). It’s served in a generous portion that seems insurmountable but quickly disappears. Chefs Rachel Bonhus and Jose Soto do right by Cuban cuisine and their menu has a deep bench. Choose an empanada, any empanada ($4), and you’re guaranteed a crisp golden half-moon envelope the size of a baby’s head containing moist chicken, fragrant beef or egg and cheese. A kale and avocado salad ($7) is, perhaps, the most refreshing thing on the North side. As for dessert, order the Key Lime Pie ($6). That might feel incongruous; it is, after all, the official pie of Florida, not Cuba. But Cuban immigrants brought the pie to Florida during Cuba’s (first) war for independence in the 1860s. And so, it is both a delicious and historically accurate way to end the meal.
70 N. 6th St. (betw. Wythe & Kent Aves.), Brooklyn, 718-782-3334.