Dan Smith: Taste of Cuba is close to home

Oct. 09, 2013 @ 05:49 PM

I have long been fascinated by the island country south of the U.S. called Cuba. You have probably heard me mention that I love Cuban food and have eaten at Cuban restaurants in Disney’s Pleasure Island and in Key West. Someday I would like to visit Cuba.

I recently discovered a Cuban restaurant right here in Pigeon Forge called “Smokies Cuban Café — Best Cuban Food in the Smokies.” I’ve eaten there several times now and haven’t been disappointed yet. What I really like about the food is, it’s good for you!

Some of the varieties you will find there are plantains, which are similar to a banana, but are starchy, unlike the fruit of the banana. You eat a banana raw, but cook the plantain. Another meal that is really good is the roast pork platter with black beans and rice. Doesn’t that sound good? How about a stuffed potato which has ground beef in the center with spices thrown in?

My favorite dish is the picadillo hash with rice. The portion you get is actually too much to eat at one time and so I ask for a to-go-box and finish it the next day. If you like coffee (who doesn’t like coffee?) try the Cuban coffee with flan. Flan is a Cuban-style custard. I have to be honest, the Cuban coffee is served in tiny cups, but it is packed with caffeine and I’m glad the cups are small.

The owners of the restaurant are Maria and Armando Borges. Ivette Borges and Amaury Oliva run the place. Amaury Oliva came here on a raft in 1992. Ivette came from Cuba and went to Costa Rica, then New Jersey, Miami, Florida and finally to Pigeon Forge. She came legally on a plane, by the way. Ivette has two children now, ages 15 and 17, who one day would like to go back to Cuba to visit. Ivette’s father-in-law is still in Cuba today.

The family is very happy living here in the United States where they get to participate in the election process; something they could not do in Cuba. They are hard-working people, but enjoy what they do, day to day, serving the people of Sevier County with good meals all day long.

Ivette was sworn in as an American citizen in 2001. She’s only the second person I have ever met who has been sworn in, the other being someone I knew back in 2006 from Canada. I have no problem welcoming people into our country who do it legally and are willing to work hard and make their way here. Both of these people have done just that.

Ivette, like most Cubans living in the U.S. has no love for the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. They realized the hardships that their brothers and sister still living there have had to endure. They have found life here much easier to cope with when you get to keep the fruits of your labor and have an incentive to keep going. I was telling Ivette that one day, the Cuban people will all be free; it’s only a matter of time, and that time is soon.

One thing about the Cuban food preparation is the influence of the Cuban Revolution itself. In Cuba today, the food flavor has changed because of what Cuba can get only from outside America to add to the cooking process. There is no American influence on the food in Cuba today. On the other hand, the Cuban food preparation in Miami does have American influence and will taste different from food in Cuba. Any country that trades with Cuba today, in the exchange of different foods, will have that influence on what ever dish is being prepared in Cuba. Makes sense, right?

Although Smokies Cuban Café does not sell alcoholic beverages, they plan to one day, when they grow big enough to move to a bigger location so that they have the required seating capacity to have a liquor license. Cuban drinks are still famous, even outside of Cuba. There are many that I could name and I’ll bet a lot of you have tried most of them and might not even know you did.

You can find the Smokies Cuban café in Pigeon Forge between traffic lights 7 and 8 on the parkway. Their phone number is 865 365-1700. Stop in and get a taste of the Caribbean.