Havana on the Hudson
Partake in the exotic tastes of the Valley’s emerging Cuban dining scene at Babalu Bob’s in Fishkill
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One of the most curious culinary marriages is Chinese-Cuban cuisine. Until about 10 years ago, Manhattan’s West Side was sprinkled with vest-pocket eateries advertising this food hybrid. Subsequent commercial development has all but expunged them. The mingling goes back to the 1850s when Chinese laborers were brought to the island as indentured servants, many toiling in the sugar cane fields. Many Cuban cooks adopted techniques like stir-frying (especially fried rice, which you still encounter in Cuba), fermenting beans before cooking, roasting with Chinese spices, and making doughs and pastas. Chef Bob serves a traditional Galician soup (caldo gallego) containing bok choy.
Another of the café’s better starters is the classic Cuban preparation called empañadas de carne, crescent-shaped pastry stuffed with ground beef, onions, and parsley. I noticed salt cod in a couple of entrées, which seemed like an odd ingredient for Caribbean cooking. I later learned that the northern European sojourners had brought it to the island as early as the 17th century. The codfish fritters at Babalu Bob’s were delightful: cleanly fried, slightly meaty, and oceanic.
The restaurant emphasizes traditional dishes like bistec empanizado (breaded fried sirloin with onions), camarones a la jillo (shrimp sautéed with garlic and mojo sauce), and cerdo clásico (marinated and roasted pork with sautéed onions). The cerdo, or roasted pork, was on the tough side; it was mostly redeemed, however, by a luscious vegetable sauce.
If you are on the run, a good fill-the-tank option are Cuban sandwiches. Soft Cuban rolls are sliced and layered with any number of ingredients and pressed in a two-sided griddle, which is similar to a panini press but without the grooved surfaces. A typical sandwich combines pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard.
Having plowed through six courses, I passed on the famous “Hemingway Platter” — coconut shrimp, cod fritters, lobster empañadas, fried scallops, and calamari sticks. It was time for dessert. The selection was limited to two items, flan and a cheesecake. I ordered both. The cheesecake was surprisingly good, almost fluffy, and not overly rich. Cuban-style flan is denser than the French version, almost cake-like, and set over a puddle of caramel sauce.
I left Babalu Bob’s on a glacial February night only to find that my car door was iced over, and would not budge. I found myself wondering if that Miami gig was still open?
¿Es este cubano?
Considering that traditional Cuban food is sometimes misidentified as something else, here are a few touchstones to look for:
► Ropa vieja (above): If this is not on the menu, keep your hat on and head back out.
► Mojo: A condiment made with sour orange or lime, garlic, and cumin.
► Sofrito: Sort of the kim chee of Cuban cooking, melding onions, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers, cumin, and other seasonings. Chorizo may be added for some dishes, as well as a blending of herbs like cilantro and dried spices.
► Puff pastries: Often filled with guava or ground beef (Havana style).
► Telltale signs you may not be in a traditional Cuban restaurant: Spicy dishes, butter-based sauces, tortillas, food on fire, flamenco guitarist
Babalu Bob’s Cuban Cafe
Buffet lunch served Tues.-Fri. 12-3 p.m., Sun. 2-8 p.m.
Dinner Tues.-Fri. 3-8 p.m., Sat. 2-10 p.m., Sun. 2-8 p.m.
Buffet $8.95. Dinner appetizers range from $2.95-$17; entrées $13.95-$17.95; desserts $3.50-$5.
986 Main St., Fishkill.