Like many travelers, I first became acquainted with Cuban food in Miami. It was 1980, and I had gone down with my girlfriend to interview for a newspaper job.
For dinner our first night out we headed over to Calle Ocho, the main drag in the Cuban barrio. We had booked a table in a sprawling whitewashed villa-cum-restaurant with wrought iron filigree and dangling bougainvillea all about. A small band played near a dance floor. I don’t remember everything we ate, but I do recall being delighted with the croquetas stuffed with chorizo, tamales (Cuban-style cakes made with steamed cornmeal), and all manners of pork. The food tasted even better the next day as we nibbled our way through the offerings at various street stands.
While the ethnic scene was a blast, we ended up declining the offer to reside there. But we did roll up a few croquetas for the plane before we took off. Over the years I have dined on Cuban food in various cities, but sometimes you have to be an investigative reporter to find it. So I was intrigued to hear that there was a good little Cuban place not far from my home.
Babalu Bob’s, a family-owned Cuban restaurant on Main Street in Fishkill, is a popular place that, at times, can seem unpopulated — at least on weekdays, when I dropped in for an early dinner (and I do mean early: during the week, the owners call it a day at 8 p.m.). When I arrived at 6:30 p.m., there was but one table occupied, by an amorous young Hispanic couple enjoying a copious repast. But there is a sizeable crowd on weekends; Cuban music strikes up on Saturdays and if you’re lucky, the chef will shed his apron and try his hand on the congas; the place even stays open until the devilish hour of 10 p.m.
The eatery is the creation of Bob Ramos — a garrulous third-generation Cuban-American — and his wife Susan. Last year, the couple moved the restaurant from a tight space in a nearby strip mall to this more cheerful and comfortable location. The 10-table dining room is done in bright shades of yellow and green, with a new pine floor and ersatz greenery that suggests an island theme. Ramos, whose ancestors hail from Cuba and Galicia in northwestern Spain, was raised in the Bronx. There he took an interest in cooking alongside his grandmother, who schooled him in handed-down family recipes. “Opening a Cuban restaurant of my own was a dream,” he claims. “And Fishkill was the perfect setting for it.”
I claimed a stool at the tiny bar and struck up a conversation with the only other paying customer, a sociable fellow in his 30s who was confined to a motorized scooter. It was nice to have company. We nibbled away at traditional Cuban appetizers — my favorite was the crispy croquetas Habaneras, cigar-shaped fritters filled with minced ham and salty chorizo and paired with a sassy, hot-sweet mango dipping sauce. While we ate, my companion recounted the extraordinary particulars of his life. With remarkable dispassion he recalled how he once fell out of an airplane at several hundred feet (that’s fall, not jump with a parachute), how he was run over by a car, how he lost much of his hearing, and other less debilitating misfortunes. I wanted to buy him a drink, but Babalu Bob’s is dry pending a liquor license; until then it’s BYO. (Or, like me, you can scoot across treacherous Route 52 for a beer.
The bright interior of Babalu Bob’s
“I don’t understand why this place isn’t more discovered,” my new friend remarked as he tucked into a platter of ropa vieja, one of Cuba’s national dishes (literally, it translates as “old clothes,” generally referring to garments that are so worn the fibers show). Certain flank steaks can be as tough as a saddle; shredding the meat allows it to soak up the cooking liquids. At Babalu Bob’s the meat is exceptionally tender, and the sauce well flavored with the ubiquitous sofrito (a combination of cooked tomatoes, onions, green bell pepper, and other ingredients).
Those sampling Cuban fare for the first time might be amazed to learn that virtually all sauces and condiments are on the sweet side; this often results from the inclusion of simmering vegetables like onions and green bell peppers. “Some people come in here thinking Cuban food is like Mexican food, really spicy,” Ramos said. Ironically, one of Ramos’ first entrepreneurial ventures, in 1990, was a Mexican-Cuban restaurant in Beacon called Wee-Chi’s. “Back then, Cuban food was not that well-known in the Valley. So I figured we should serve Mexican, which was very popular, just to be safe.”
Today, Ramos estimates that 35 percent of his clientele is Cuban, followed by Caribbean and a mix of other nationalities from within a 25-mile radius. He enjoys introducing the cuisine to those who are unfamiliar with it. “Nobody has a better palate than Americans; they travel all over the world, trying out all sorts of differents foods and flavors. We get a lot of people who have never had Cuban food before, and now they love it. It’s definitely becoming much more popular now.”
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?
Considering that traditional Cuban food is sometimes misidentified as something else, here are a few touchstones to look for:
â–º Ropa vieja (above): If this is not on the menu, keep your hat on and head back out.
â–º Mojo: A condiment made with sour orange or lime, garlic, and cumin.
â–º 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.
â–º Puff pastries: Often filled with guava or ground beef (Havana style).
â–º 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.