"We are authentic," says Vicente Lerro Fong, director of Cubanos, the latest Latin venue to hit Bangkok. "We have authentic Cuban food, Cuban cocktails, Cuban cigars, a Cuban band …"
We’re sitting on the mezzanine level of the two-level Cuban restaurant and pub, watching the staff prepare for the evening behind the long bar that curls below. "But to really be Latin, you have to have the Latin feeling inside. We don’t compete with the other Latin restaurants because only we are authentic. Of course, what they are doing can be very good, but it’s not the same."
Fong should know – the Cuban-born guitarist has spent most of the past three-and-a-half years in Bangkok playing in a Latin band at various venues, including Senor Picos, the Pathumwan Princess and the Siam Novotel. When the band’s last gig ended, everyone went back to Cuba except for Fong, who decided to give his own venture a go, along with several partners.
"See," he says in a bewitching accent, as he waves his hands around at the white stuccoed and arched walls. "This is like a real Cuban house. We worked for eight months to get the design just right."
Since their November opening, Fong has been playing in the resident band, Mambo Asi. "This is what’s fun. It would be boring to just be an owner. I’m not in this to make money, I’m here to have fun. If I make money, though, that’s okay."
My cocktail arrives – I’ve gone for the very refreshing mojito, a mixed cocktail made of Havana Club rum, lemon, sugar, fresh mint and soda water (Bt160) – and after ensuring I’m happy with it, Fong makes a few menu recommendations.
We start with the Tamales en Hoja a la Criolla (Bt100), finely minced corn and chicken triangles wrapped in fresh corn leaves. They come with three delicately spiced sauces on the side which complement the meat very well.
Soups are next; I dig in to the Ajiaco "Gransopa de Cuba", a typical Creole vegetable soup (Bt100), while my partner goes for the hearty black bean soup known as Frijoles Negros (Bt100). We’re both impressed by the robust flavours that are simple and uninhibited.
Is it difficult to get the ingredients that go into Cuban dishes here in Thailand? "Look, Cuba is here," Fong says, drawing a straight line through the air. "And Thailand is here." In other words, the countries are located on similar latitudes, sharing the same climate, so the basic ingredients of Thai and Cuban cooking grow equally well in either place.
But there are some things that are uniquely produced in Cuba: like Cuban beer. "We hope to have Cuban beer here in a few months." The appalled look on Fong’s face when I ask him whether Cuban beer is any good is enough of an answer.
For mains, I tackle a serving of Aporreado de Pescado, a fish stew (Bt 200). It’s a tad on the salty side, but that just makes me hanker for another cocktail. Is this a tactic to loosen me up for the dance floor? My partner heads for the Papa Rellena Con Pollo, chicken stuffed in potato balls (Bt 200) and is suitably satisfied. The innovative rice servings are worth noting: they’re shaped mounds, a diagonal half of which is plain rice, with the other a more colourful black-bean rice.
This is well-priced, unembellished Cuban food. I suspect that its aim – beyond making you believe you really could be in Cuba – is to sustain you for a full night’s dancing.
Fong envisions a lively restaurant where locals can come and let the rhythm of Latin music infect them. "People can try something different here. Thai people are soft, Cuban people are very energetic. You can come here and be loud, learn how to dance Cuban-style."
Cubanos, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 19, Sukhumvit Rd, Klong Toey Neua, Bangkok 10110. Tel: 255 5800-1/01 840 6426. Call to find out more about Latin dancing classes, which happen from 10am to 10pm above the restaurant.