I grew up eating my mother's Cuban food. Black beans and rice, fried plantains, picadillo, you name it.
My mother grew up in the midst of her parents' Cuban restaurant in southern Los Angeles. Thus, I am armed with a generations-old prejudice when it comes to the cooking of these Caribbean delicacies. There is certainly a right way and a wrong way to prepare arroz con pollo or frijoles negros. That being said, it was with much trepidation and intrigue that I first decided to try the food stand describing itself as the Cuban Gypsy Pantry on King Street.
Readily preparing myself to dismiss the food as a mockery, a sham, an impostor to the authenticity of my mother’s cooking, I found myself pleasantly surprised to enjoy the dish immensely. And let me assure you, if you haven’t stopped by Cuban Gypsy Pantry yet, I can’t say I blame you. If I weren’t motivated by the opportunity to reject the stand’s Cuban moniker in a moment of uninterrupted ego stroking, I probably wouldn’t have stopped either.
The stand does itself no favors with its rust orange coloring and confusing name. I mean, is it Cuban food or gypsy food? What do gypsies eat exactly? Are they suggesting that Cubans are gypsies? (Insert my abuela turning in her grave here.)
But now having experienced Cuban Gypsy Pantry’s food first hand, I urge you to avert your eyes and trust your nose and your taste buds. I strolled up to the order window and the rhythmic hum of Spanish being spoken hit my ears; immediately my defenses began to break down. If the clientele are speaking Spanish, it points towards authenticity already. I ordered the black beans and rice with fried plantains. I figured this dish, comprised of the basics of Cuban cuisine, would be enough for me to pass judgment.
I sat down and awaited my order at one of two plastic patio tables. The South Carolina sun seemed to join in the cooking of pork fat and garlic rub as it sizzled on a hot griddle, the carnal smell lingering in the warm air. Flaky empanadas emerged from a deep fryer within the confines of the portable metallic stand. My doubts were diminishing by the minute.
As I opened the simple Styrofoam container, made hot by the freshly cooked rice and beans, I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway’s ode to Cuba, his novella The Old Man and the Sea. Was this not the same meal enjoyed by the old man in the opening chapter, brought to him by the adoring young boy? The elegant simplicity of the dish makes the comparison hard to ignore.
The bright yellow rice is contrasted by the dark black of the beans. The plantains are hot and fresh, a garlic pesto concoction drizzled atop their caramelized edges. The dish is savory and rich. The flavors are simultaneously distinct and unified, complementary without blending into some formless, nondescript Caribbean flavor.
My prejudices defeated, I offered my compliments to the chef. He nodded gratefully, smiling as though he knew he had just vanquished my notions of genuine authenticity.
I urge you to make Cuban Gypsy Pantry a stop on your path to work, the bars, or in lieu of a likely-overpriced meal elsewhere on King Street. Located on a nondescript lot on 424 King Street, this unassuming food stand is the cure to your lunch break woes.