I was intrigued when Anonymous asked me to go to Kool Korner’s Saturday night special dinner, even though I was studying for this maldicho bar exam. He said the place looks like just a regular sandwich shop in a Vestavia shopping center but behind the counter is Ildefonso Ramirez from Matanzas, Cuba, and back in the kitchen they are whipping up the most authentic Cuban cuisine this side of Havana.
I mean, is it a CIA front or something? Anonymous never answers that question, either, so don’t even ask him.
Well, for the Saturday night Special the Kool Korner does not just prepare the same sandwiches they ply by day. They put on the full Cuban spread estilo casero. That means homestyle, Anonymous told me.
Anonymous discovered the place in the light of an ordinary weekday when he popped in from the wine shop next door and discovered that Kool Korner sandwich shop offered more than Ham & Cheese on wheat or Turkey on rye, but real Cuban sandwiches as well.
It is the kind Anonymous said he used to be able to get in his mother’s hometown of Tampa—or more specifically Ybor City, before it turned into Yuppy City with a House of Blues, and before all the old Cuban storefronts disappeared.
Anonymous went into one of the old cigar and sandwich shops and started speaking Spanish (you know how he is when he turns on the Latin charm, even though he looks like he’s Irish) and the girl behind the counter just smiled condescendingly and said, sorry, we’re Lebanese, and we bought this shop three years ago. I would have been muy celosa otherwise, of course. A.’s cute when he’s sheepish though.
So after that experience he was excited to find an authentic Cuban sandwich in Birmingham. You can hardly find them still in Cuba, even after perestoika, and especially after the período especial when there basically was no food in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union.
He told me it is the best one this side of Miami, with the Hoagie roll (at least that’s what we call that type of bread in Jersey) perfectly toasted and just the right yellow mustard and dill pickle (if it were any other dish, A. would be asking for stone-ground coarse, etc., with a cornichon, as you probably know by now).
Then of course you have the main ingredients of a real Cuban sandwich, ham and fresh pork layered in a cozy combination one on top of the other. And it is the pork that makes it authentic Cuban. You are talking lechón, slow-roasted and succulent like Anonymous finds by the side of the road when he drives from Havana to Cienfuegos past all the billboards of George W. Bush with dripping fangs. Those would be perfect for eating lechón.
When you are talking about cooking slow-roasted meats, there is a definite mojo to it. You may think mojo is just a sauce because you spent too many nights at Applebee’s, or just a line in a rock and roll song--and of course the word is now used to denote sex appeal (appropriate in this instance, of course)--but it originally meant a spell or a charm. And Cuba is home to plenty of santería and voodoo and who knows what kind of black magic (Santana probably knows better than me), not to mention macho bravado (funny how those words translate right into English, effortlessly, with the option to italicize or not).
And that magic spell certainly finds it way into real Cuban cooking. Because it pervades everything. Just look at the Cuban music and dancing, rhythm and gyrating.
And last time Anonymous was in Cuba, the driver looked at A. in the rearview mirror and said, “I recognize you.” I didn’t completely follow their conversation in that dirty Cuban Spanish, but it went something like: I recognize your inner animal. I can tell by the way you move, etc. And apparently those magical Cubans are like shamans and know what they are talking about when it comes to inner animals and such.
I think A. is a little off his rocker, but there is a reason he thinks he’s a lion, for sure, if you want some real excitement, just invite him over when you are through studying for the bar for the evening. And Cubans love lions, to be sure. And coincidentally, A. is a Leo, por casualidad, as he would say, tossing his mane to make sure I notice.
So now Anonymous tries to interrupt my studies on Saturday nights to go get the authentic Cuban dinner, with four choices of meats and all the accompaniments.
Tempting as it was, I had to stick to my studies, so A. got the Cuban Saturday Night Special Dinner take-out and brought it all the way out to my modest abode in Homewood’s version of Soho. He is really sweet, as only a real lion can afford to be—just don’t try to get in the way of him and the main course once he really gets to feasting.
Of course the most obvious selection is the roast pork, or lechón, the same one that goes on the Cuban sandwiches. And with the full course home-made dinner, in addition to the meat selection, you automatically get a tamal (not on Scarlet’s low-carb diet, though Anonymous is always sweet when I say I’m too fat and argues convincingly that I’m just right, which is why he gets to dine in, I suppose).
Then of course you have the most important Cuban staple, black beans and rice. More starch! Well now you know why those Cuban women go from looking drop-dead gorgeous—enough to ignite an embargo or a missile crisis, without even trying--to more wholesome looking, not that there is anything wrong with that, but a fate Scarlet wants to avoid at all costs.
I made a starch exception, however, for the maduros—soft sweet delicious ripe plantains in some sort of sugarcane syrup—I didn’t even ask. There has always had to be some plausible deniability in U.S. policy towards the Castro regime, after all.
Kool Korner has empanadas (meat turnovers), too, but A. says that the Cubans don’t make them like the Argentinians do, so he is holding out on that for his next trip to the Mendoza wine country (I want to go!--I’m no foolish country girl, after all).
Well, back to the other meat choices with the Saturday night dinner.
If you already had a Kool Korner Cuban sandwich for lunch, and thus the roast pork thereon, you could opt for the roasted chicken Cuba is famous for at El Aljibe, for example. Ildefonso Ramirez injects his with juices beneath the skin and then slow roasts that poor chicken till it is ready to fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.
Or you can get the beef tenderloin course. Sounds like an ordinary trip to the meat counter at Publix, right? Not with Ildefonso, por supuesto. He wraps the tenderloin around a chorizo stuffing. And that Chorizo is a dense, dark bright cherry red, almost black (is there a Chorizo shade of lipstick, by chance?) and oozing with pimienta-pepper oil. Well that’s the kind of thing they do in Matanzas where there is no such thing as Publix, or even Piggly Wiggly. ˇFíjate! Imagine that.
And here is what A. brought for our Saturday night study break: ropa vieja. When I heard that I have to say I was dubious already, and then when he told me that ropa vieja means “old clothes,” I thought that is one thing you will never find Scarlet wearing anywhere after a four-course meal. I mean, honestly, I wouldn’t be caught dead in anything meeting that description, even on a study break at O’Henry’s. But A., with his usual patient persistence with me, told me to try it for my own pleasure, if not benefit (well, he knows very well I have a hedonistic streak), and sure enough I adored the shredded beef with spices.
I hate it when he’s always right, even when I’ve already got my mind made up. It frequently inconveniences me when I have to change my social calendar to accommodate his visits even when I think I can’t stand any more of his unusual behavior, much less understand half of what he is talking about. And damn if he doesn’t convince me every time. Majorly annoying!
So A. shows up with the to-go boxes with the plastic plates and forks, etc., and once I got a taste of the food I was ready to just go for it. But A., finicky as always (until he gets a good taste of it and goes into that lion feeding frenzy), refused to eat off of plastic. He said that is the only thing he does not like about Kool Korner, the plastic forks and dishes.
So just to humor him and get on with it, I got out real plates and forks, and darned if he was not right again. He is so sensitive he claims he can taste the synthetic polymer molecules. I don’t know about the chemistry of that, but everything definitely tasted better after we made the crockery and cutlery transfer. Only problem is, with my study schedule and eating take-out and all, I do not have a full china cupboard of clean dishes, and we usually have to fish something straight out of the dishwasher. OK, so I am not the world’s most domestic housekeeper. I dare you to sue me as soon as I pass my exam.
Meanwhile, Anonymous takes care of my feeding. He helps me with my review writing, too—which I like, since he may be peculiar but he understands the funny is sexy to us girls. He even helps me with my Spanish. Muy amable of him. And maybe he will take me to Kool Korner in person and I’ll even supply the fine china, sterling silver, linen tablecloth he likes, and the Baccarat crystal wine glasses, as long as he supplies the Alconde Selección Garnacha (made by a Spanish woman winemaker, very sexy) and his charming self.
ˇOjala! Claro que sí. Por suerte.
Kool Korner Sandwiches 790 Montgomery Highway # 134, Vestavia Hills, AL 35216 (205) 822-4406 koolkornersandwiches.com