Cuba-Style Finesse on a Plate

At Casa Cubana, traditional Cuban cuisine gets a 21st-century California twist.


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Casa Cubana puts its own spin on the menu offerings, such as guava-glazed pork ribs.

Photo by Lori Eanes

For most of us, Cuba has always been the geographical, cultural, and culinary equivalent of that fascinating cousin we’ve never met. Politics have held the island hostage.

Until now. Veteran restaurateur Sam DuVall and executive chef Joe Kohn have launched Casa Cubana in the Grand Avenue space long occupied by Vo’s.

“Sam has been to Cuba dozens of times, and, as a devoted art collector, supports many Cuban artists,” Kohn explains. “My passion is healthy food. What we have in common is our love for the largely undiscovered potential of Cuban cuisine.”

“You see Cuban fare here and there in Northern California, but it’s almost always just rice and beans, the way grandma might make it. Sure, everyone loves grandma’s cooking, but we wanted to add finesse and culinary techniques.”

Kohn and DuVall, San Francisco restaurateurs who own Izzy’s Steak & Chop House and used to own the Cuban restaurant Habana, visited Cuba together recently.

“I loved the tropical fruit—sapote, papaya—and the flavors: Caribbean, with Spanish and African influences,” Kohn said. “Living in a communist country, where they can’t get a lot of the ingredients they wish they had, makes Cuban cooks resourceful. They’re ingenious survivalists.” Kohn learned from them while sharing some of his own tricks, such as making faux sour cream from lemons and cashews.

At Casa Cubana, traditional Cuban cuisine gets a 21st-century California twist. Consider guava-glazed pork ribs, lentil-raisin picadillo, cauliflower ceviche, and coconut-milk creamed corn. Guacamole is virtually unknown in Cuba, Kohn admits, “but we figured that everyone loves guacamole, so we add pineapple to ours and serve it with plaintain, taro, and yuca chips.”

That Cali-Cuban fusion extends to cocktails such as the beety Remolacha and carroty Zanohriha.

Research persuaded the pair to set up shop in Oakland. “What’s great about Oakland is that people here are more aware of ethnic foods than most people elsewhere,” Kohn asserts. “And they’re more eager to try new things. I feel that being in Oakland puts us on the cusp of something special—or right in the middle of it.”

Casa Cubana, 59 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-452-2822, www.CasaCubanaOakland.com.

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