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Wrong About Cafe Cubano

November 11, 2013

Last week a few more facts emerged concerning “lettucegate”. Globe trotting food blogger DocSconz made a trip to La Mexicana in Schenectady and snapped a pic of his lengua taco.

Spoiler alert: The picture showed meat, onion and cilantro with no lettuce at all.

Also, we finally heard from the mysterious yelper Paul G. It was his taco picture that Burnt My Fingers insisted showed lettuce on a La Mexicana taco. But Paul clarified in the comments that none of his tacos from La Mexicana have ever come with lettuce. That green stuff is, and always has been, cilantro.

In this case, I was correct. The Times Union food critic Bryan Fitzgerald was wrong. And Steve Barnes who said I was wrong, was also wrong.

Which isn’t to say that I’m never wrong. For example, I’m probably wrong to be harping on this. Much like I was wrong to escalate the argument over banana “ice cream”. But today I wanted to share with you the time that I was wrong about Cuban coffee. So let me say this. I was a fool to have ever doubted my old friend Raf. Even though his assertion struck me at the time as being completely ridiculous, he was right and I was wrong.

One of the coffee brewing tools I brought down to Princeton is my Bialetti stovetop espresso machine. Maybe there is some way to use that thing to actually make good espresso, but I doubt it.

I bought it expressly for the purposes of making Cuban coffee, and for that it’s great.

My high school experience in Miami was fueled by Cafe Cubano. The local Cuban cafeteria was a regular stop after school for a cafe con leche and a snack which usually consisted of a few ham croquettes.

In this context, Cuban coffee doesn’t refer to coffee beans grown in Cuba. Rather it’s a style of espresso-based drinks, defined by a few surprising traits. It’s made from relatively inexpensive beans, it’s really really strong, and it’s shockingly sweet.

At the cafeteria, it’s made in a bona fide espresso machine. A very milky cup is called coffee with milk, aka cafe con leche. Less milk and it’s a cortadito. But if you order just the the straight stuff, it’s simply un cafe, and it’s likely to come in a thimble-sized cup.

When I worked in Downtown Miami, people would run out and get something called a Colada, which was a few ounces of the rocket fuel in a small styrofoam cup. This would come with a small stack of plastic thimbles so you could share it with your best friends at the office. For a couple of bucks you’re the most popular guy in the world.

Like all good espresso, this coffee is densely concentrated and has a thick crema floating on the top. Except here’s the rub.

Raf insisted that this crema was a product of the sugar.

This went against everything I knew (and still know) about espresso drinks. It was an outlandish statement. Every coffee geek knows that the crema on the coffee comes from the freshly ground coffee oils emulsifying under the heat and pressure of the water forced through them in the filter basket of the espresso machine.

Remember what I said about Cuban coffee being made with not such great beans? It’s one of the reasons why it has always been so cheap. Really, there are two major brands. Bustello and Pilon. For what it’s worth, I’m on team Bustello.

At the Cuban cafeterias, before the coffee starts flowing, they spoon an ungodly amount of sugar into a small metal pitcher. This pitcher then gets placed under the filter basket to catch the brew. It’s stirred and served.

This process is repeated at home with the Bialetti but with a minor adaptation.

The coffee pot is placed on the stove. Sugar is scooped into a small pitcher. And when the first teaspoon or so of the espresso is pushed through the grinds, these precious few drops are poured into the sugar. The pot is placed back on the stove to finish brewing. And this is where the magic happens.

With furious might, the sugar and coffee are creamed together with a spoon.

It’s an amazing sight to behold. The white granules of sugar and the almost inky black coffee start as separate elements. Then they combine into a dark brown and grainy paste. But in under a minute they transform into a creamy light beige mousse.

The remainder of the coffee is poured in, and once it’s fully combined with the sugar paste, it’s portioned into glasses. Do this right, and like a pint of Guinness you can see a cascade effect down the side of the glass. It’s a sight to behold. And on the top of the glass is a thick, fragrant crema of emulsified oils and sugar.

Without going through this process, the Bialetti would not produce a crema from storebought Bustelo grinds. Like I said, maybe there is some other intricate process for getting good performance from this tool using better beans.

But I’m thrilled to finally be mastering Cuban coffee years after leaving Raf behind in California. The only downside is that I’m going through a whole lot more sugar than I’d like. But at most it’s only five teaspoons a day. And it’s a real treat. Much more of one than sucking down a soda at lunch without thinking twice about it.

Raf was right. I was wrong. And thankfully now I know better.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. DEN permalink
    November 11, 2013 1:31 pm

    On lettucegate, I have not had a taco at La Mexicana with lettuce, but the only complete conclusion would be an inspection of the picture that the TU reviewer took of the taco, no? Because maybe there was a screw up in the kitchen, or he inadvertently/deliberately ordered it that way, or there was no fresh cilantro that day, etc., etc. It might be a minuscule chance that there was lettuce on that taco, but I think fairness requires that you at least make the request to see the TU’s photo evidence (if not done already) You might get the admission of guilt you crave, or it may highlight other areas that the reviewer can improve on (e.g., comparing menu description with what was actually served on the plate)

    • November 11, 2013 3:29 pm

      Needless to say, I haven’t been closely monitoring the whole “Lettucegate” situation… But has anyone maybe gone into the place said something like — “hey, have you all ever put lettuce on a taco if someone didn’t ask for it?” That might clear it up.


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