From 1960 to 1979, hundreds of thousands of Cuban people fled the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and began new lives in the United States. Iderlin Carillo Rivera’s parents were among those who settled in the New Orleans area, and for nine years she welcomed with both fear and confidence immigrants of her parents’ and grandparents’ generations to Que Rico!, her humble Cuban restaurant in an Old Town Slidell strip mall.
Until recently last year’s loss of her lease on the Slidell building, following a painstakingly self-financed renovation no less, felt like misfortune. Then one of the many Uptown New Orleans-based customers who frequently made the trek to the other side of the lake to enjoy her exceptional Cuban cuisine intervened and helped negotiate a reasonable lease on a small building in a bustling block of Magazine Street, an area that Rivera and her husband and kitchen partner, Richard, had long aspired to serve.
She painted the interior of the space a pale shade of aqua, adorned the walls in gilt-framed works from Cuban artists and opened to overnight success, driven by her strong existing customer and an enthusiastic welcome from New Orleans’ sizeable population of persons of Cuban heritage or descent.
“It still kind of scares me sometimes when these old, old Cuban men come in,” Rivera says. “They’ll look around and ask ‘Is this real Cuban? Give me a colada (Cuban coffee); we shall see.’”
She holds her breath, lets it out. “It happens every time: They sip their coffee, nod and tell me to feed them.”
She usually starts them off with either ham or chicken croquetas and green plantain tostones before she moves on to the entrée. Sometimes she brings them her Lechon Asado: 12-hour slow-roasted pork topped with grilled sweet onions and her special Mojo sauce. Sometimes it’s a Media Noche (Midnight Special) sandwich that’s stuffed with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese and tangy pickles stuffed between two pieces of vaguely sweet egg bread before she presses it to crisp perfection. Sometimes it’s traditional beef ropa vieja; others it’s a garlic and spice-rubbed Cuban-style steak, tamales, black beans, picadillo or a traditional Cuban sandwich.
“They eat and eat, real slow, thinking about every bite. Sometimes they just smile and nod when they are done. But the best is when they smile, nod and say ‘This food? This is like my mother used to make.’ That just fills my heart with such pride. It brings such joy to my life to be able to remind those old men of their mothers.”
If your personal early spring practice includes abstaining from meat for Lent you won’t miss it a bit at Good Karma Plant Based Cuisine & Coffee, a colorful, soothing retreat located on the Canal Street campus of the atmospheric Swan River Yoga School.
Each day brings fresh interpretations of Prasad, food offered to God with loving intention. The practice is based in Ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence that is the foundation of the Hare Krishna community in which brothers and co-owners Goshi and Deshi Berg were raised. Superfoods and botanicals are in heavy use in the kitchen and the menu is replete with tempting, colorful juice blends like Enlightened (kale, parsley, cucumber, mint, lemon and ginger) and smoothies like Heart Chakra (beet, apple, turmeric, strawberry, peach, blueberry, banana, walnuts, agave and coconut milk). Breakfast includes Upma, a traditional, spicy, savory Southeast Indian porridge served with fresh coconut chutney. The Malaysian curry bowl combines cauliflower, sweet and golden potatoes, carrots and soy protein stewed in a coconut sauce kissed with lemongrass and ginger and served atop brown or Basmati rice with a finish of crushed peanuts. For an excellent grab-and-go option try the Avocado Sandwich combining slices of perfectly ripe avocado, tomato, vegan mayonnaise, cucumber, fresh lettuce and almond spread on toasted Bellegarde Bakery bread.
Good Karma Cafe, 2940 Canal St., 401-4698, GoodKarmaNola.com
Que Rico! Cuban Cafe, 4200 Magazine St., 827-1398