The Cuban Connection

Before Castro's baseball team came to play in Baltimore, the city was filled with island influences.

May 02, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Compadres, here's a secret the capitalists in Baltimore discovered well before Fidel sent a baseball team here.

Cuba's kind of cool.

Just as Lucy went for Desi, the Yankees embraced El Duque and Hemingway was lured by the island's fishing, Baltimore's fallen hard for things with a Cuban accent -- from dancing to monuments, restaurants and cigars.

"People are very curious what Cuba's like," said Tim Whisted, owner of Little Havana, a Cuba-themed restaurant and bar in Federal Hill. "It's different. It's forbidden."

Steve F. de Castro, owner of Havana Club, the pricey leather- and wood-trimmed nightclub in the Brokerage that opened two years ago, said his club's Cuban theme has proved to be its greatest selling point.

"I can't tell you how often customers come up to me to just ask me questions about Cuba," he said.

But even de Castro was surprised that some self-made millionaire from Baltimore named Peter Angelos -- whose Orioles play the Cuban All-Star team at Camden Yards tomorrow night -- would be the architect of beisbol diplomacy and not some highbrow guy from a bigger town.

"Hey, is this amazing?" said de Castro. "It's not happening in New York. It's happening in Baltimore."

The flavor of Cuba

Little Havana is a Cuban restaurant imagined. Whisted and his wife have never been to the island nation, but having learned the restaurant trade in the Florida Keys, they could make an educated guess.

Admittedly, they took a lot of liberties -- most of the menu is "suggested" by Cuban cooking. Only a couple of dishes are the genuine article. The decor is recycle-chic with old barn wood, tin ceiling tiles as table coverings, antiqued paint -- just the kind of thing you can imagine in retro-Havana.

But as faux as the finish may be, the Cuban food -- particularly Picadillo, a beef hash on rice, and a fish fillet encrusted with plantain -- have turned out to be among the restaurant's best sellers.

The preferred beer is Hatuey (pronounced ah-tway). Once Cuba's best-selling beer, Hatuey was discontinued when Castro confiscated Bacardi's breweries. The original formula -- mild and smooth, not unlike Mexico's Corona -- was resurrected in 1995 by the relocated and now Miami-based Bacardi-Martini USA.

"We thought we'd be the first to bring a little bit of Cuba to Baltimore," said Whisted. "It was the right choice."

Havana Club

Just as his Ruth's Chris Steak House advertises it's the "Home of Serious Steaks," its owner is never without a serious cigar, usually a thick Cuban-made Sancho Panza Torpedo.

Embargo or not, de Castro keeps a private stash of Cubans for his own enjoyment at the exclusive Havana Club just above his restaurant. They are, he insists, in a class by themselves.

But then, that's part of the show at Havana Club: expensive cigars, pricey drinks, leather chairs and Latin music on the dance floor.

Even Fidel keeps a watch over things. His portrait is part of a collage of Cuban images on the wall.

Although de Castro and his family fled Cuba in the '60s, he considers himself apolitical and thinks baseball diplomacy was overdue.

"It's been too long," he said. "Eleven million people have suffered long enough."

On Friday and Saturday nights, Havana Club is known to sizzle and smoke -- literally, cigar smoke. Nearly two years after its opening, the door must sometimes be closed by 10 p.m. because the place gets too busy.


Who is that famous Cuban hanging out at Fayette Street and Broadway in Washington Hill?

Answer: It is Jose Marti, the 19th-century Havana-born patriot and philosopher who fought to liberate Latin America from colonial rule.

The monument to Marti was dedicated last September. Its construction was financed by local Cuban Americans and its location near Fells Point is near the center of the city's growing Latino community.

Dressing the part

By sheer but remarkable coincidence, clothing styled after vintage Cuban baseball apparel has just hit some Baltimore-area stores.

Yes, you can actually buy a cap with the logo of an old Cuban team, sit in the stands tomorrow night, root for the out-of-towners and pretend you remember Cuban baseball from the good old days.

The clothing, mostly caps and sweats, is the brainchild of designer Erik Stuebe, 32, president and co-founder of Blue Marlin, a small, San Francisco-based clothing company that specializes in the vintage baseball look.

"We started researching this long before the Orioles started talking about going to Cuba," said Stuebe. "Our customer is someone who appreciates the obscurity of the property and the teams."

Stuebe also recognized Cuba carried a certain cache. He visited Havana last November. Most of the designs he copied are pre-World War II and were associated with such legends as the Alacranes, Tigres, Elefantes and El Club Habana.

No compensation was given the Castro regime. The apparel is available at Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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