After finally traveling to Cuba nearly a year ago, the thought of fancy, modern takes on the cuisine are barely below upsetting. The difference in taste between the local lunch restaurants and the tourist-only paladares was negligible. The plates might have been nicer and there was probably a small bouquet of flowers as a centerpiece, but otherwise you walked away feeling fleeced. On the first few nights, the "recommendations" from "locals" to take you to their "favorite" restaurant would come fast and furious. Luckily after a few days they stopped, apparently they caught on.
Unfortunately this was just a way for someone on a small monthly salary to try and pull in a little bit of extra change, as the restaurant (charging about as much for a meal as most people make in a month) would throw a small kickback for every tourist they could rangle. Regardless of your financial situation or the budget of your travels, these paladares showed nothing of the life (the beauty as well as the hardship) of any real Cuba, and that is why any fancified version of the cuisine even here in New York City would be upsetting and unrealistic.
There are plenty of "user-friendly" modern Cuban restaurants around, with decent offerings and probably nice atmosphere. But as this website has been showing for almost a decade, the real good stuff is just across the Hudson in Union City and West New York, New Jersey. The largest waves of immigrants and refugees have been coming here since the Cuban revolution in 1959 to live close to family and friends who had already uprooted in the previous couple decades, making everything nowadays seem very instilled and old school.
That distinct charm lives in a lot of the area's bakeries and restaurants, including El Unico de Elena, named for the late wife of the owner who still works to this day. Opened in 1976, the "charm" spoken of is probably the same quality that would earn the place a snarky review on Yelp for being dirty. But it is definitely not dirty, just worn, and this is part of why you feel so good here. The acoustical ceiling tiles, the old wooden paneled bar and throwback diner barstools were probably all originals. There is an even a working payphone inside.
The other shocking development here is that prices also seem not to have changed for decades. Heaping plates of food come out for $3.50 to $6. The ropa vieja ($4, above) is certainly workaday, but what a value. They have good rice and beans here as you would expect from any good Cuban place, and the quoted prices always include those and a couple slices of fried sweet plantains.
Our other choice this day was lechon asado ($5, below), which we had served with moro, the rice and beans combination famous in Cuba. We found this lacking the depth of richness found in the regular black beans, but the roast pork was delectable. Our server brought a spicy sauce and pointed to the pork, hinting that the combination would be worth trying. He was right.
When two people have finished their meals and juices, the check's total makes a 20% tip seem far too low. Tax is not added, so even a generous tip stretches your twenty dollar bill quite far. For those lucky enough to live close and become regulars, there is a special feeling awarded from the family that still operates this long running institution of Union City.