Dallas Morning News
HAVANA - Sergio Garcia Macias runs one of Cuba’s most popular eateries, featuring a 56-year-old secret recipe for roast chicken that has drawn the likes of Hollywood star Jack Nicholson and former President Jimmy Carter.
In the capitalist world, Garcia would probably be a millionaire, some kind of poultry king, maybe even the chicken czar of the Caribbean. But he shrugs at the thought and says he isn’t bitter, at least not now, four decades after Cuba’s socialist government nationalized his family business.
“My biggest satisfaction isn’t money. It’s seeing that a customer is satisfied,” he said from his restaurant, El Aljibe. “This restaurant is my life.”
El Aljibe is among the many Cuban institutions that faded away soon after the revolution, only to be rescued years later to help prop up the ailing economy. Others include two of Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita in Havana, and the majestic Hotel Nacional, a favorite of 1950s Hollywood that has been renovated for today’s visitors.
These vintage attractions all draw tens of thousands of tourists every month, pumping millions of dollars into the economy. And like El Aljibe, they are among the crown jewels of Cuba’s $2-billion-per-year tourism industry.
A big chunk of the profits, no doubt, would be going to Garcia and other innovators if not for the socialist revolution. But he points with pride to other gains, saying, for instance, that a share of El Aljibe’s revenues goes toward his country’s universal health care system.
Garcia pulls a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and reads the latest numbers: Over the last decade, $777,444.31 in El Aljibe profits have gone toward health care. This year alone, he said, the figure will exceed $70,000.
Garcia, 73, said he never dreamed his roast chicken would become such a smash.
He and his older brother, Pepe, 82, opened their first restaurant, El Aljibe’s predecessor, in 1947. Located in the countryside west of Havana, it was called Rancho Luna.
Their late mother, Tona Macias, came up with the chicken recipe. Garcia won’t reveal any family secrets but says the recipe includes garlic and bitter orange, a key ingredient that softens the meat.
Whatever it was, customers liked it, he said.
“We started with nothing and did no advertising. I was just 17. We were very poor. But clients came and the business grew and grew.”
Back then, Rancho Luna was a rustic place, topped with a thatched roof. And the Garcia brothers did things the old-fashioned way. They used coal, the same kind used to power locomotives, to heat their ovens.
Customers soon included Hollywood stars Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner, undefeated boxer Rocky Marciano, baseball great Stan Musial and many more.
“Cuba had a class society then. There were rich and poor. But Rancho Luna brought together everyone, Cuban millionaires, sports stars, working-class electricians. Once you got to Rancho Luna, the class differences disappeared. Everyone was the same,” said Garcia’s son, Sergio, who helps operate El Aljibe.
The Garcia brothers soon expanded, opening a second Rancho Luna in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Times were good, though it wasn’t always easy.
Garcia recalled going out at 2 a.m. to buy rice, chicken and produce for the restaurants. The streets weren’t always safe - the police had a reputation for being brutal and corrupt - and Garcia said he regularly had to bribe government inspectors to stay in business.
But he learned and adapted. The money started rolling in, and his $2.50-a-plate chicken wasn’t the only reason.
Garcia invented a dice game called The Liar and it became a sensation at his restaurants. Casinos were legal then, and Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and other American mob leaders held sway.
After the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government began nationalizing private businesses - or stealing them, depending on your point of view.
The idea was to put land and businesses in the hands of a benevolent state that would not exploit the people, Castro loyalists say. The Cuban government also seized American-owned property, then worth $1.8 billion.
The confiscations went on until 1968 when about 50,000 remaining enterprises, nearly all owned by Cuban families, were seized, according to Carlos Alberto Montaner, a prominent Castro critic and author.
“To own property was a path to power, and Fidel Castro was determined that nobody on the island would have power except himself,” Montaner wrote in the book, Journey To the Heart of Cuba.
The original Rancho Luna closed in 1961. The second restaurant in Vedado shut down two years later.
Garcia went from job to job in the government, handling administrative duties for state-run restaurants. But these were desk jobs far from the place he loves - the kitchen.
That changed in 1993. Leaders of Cubanacan, the country’s largest chain of state-run restaurants, hotels and shops, asked if he would help revive Rancho Luna. He agreed and it opened under a new name, El Aljibe.
Word of his famed roast chicken again spread, and soon El Aljibe resembled his restaurant of old, drawing everyone from director Steven Spielberg and actor Danny Glover to Roman Catholic cardinals from the Vatican and members of America’s so-called royals, the Kennedy family.
“I have a deep sentimental attachment to El Aljibe and not just because of the superb chicken,” said Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana during the Carter administration.
“When I was in Cuba the first time in, as third secretary of the old American Embassy from 1958 to 1961, my wife and I ate frequently at Rancho Luna. In fact, it was one of our favorite places. You would see everyone from movie stars and prominent people to common folks, all having a good time,” Smith said.
“How wonderful now all these years later to be back under a thatched roof with Sergio and Pepe eating that great chicken and again seeing a rather mixed group of people, all seeming to enjoy themselves,” he added. “Certainly it’s one of my favorite places in Havana today, as Rancho Luna was one of my favorites more than four decades ago.”
Supermodel Naomi Campbell is another fan. During one visit to the island, she ordered take-out from El Aljibe for 25 people.
Cuban President Fidel Castro hasn’t eaten at the 260-seat restaurant, workers say, but he did stop by to pick up Spielberg one day and they drove off in a Mercedes for a long conversation.
The open-air restaurant stands in the shadow of royal poinciana trees in Havana’s fashionable Miramar neighborhood. Hours are noon to midnight, all week.
The restaurant operated all this year, despite major renovations. Workers erected a tent next to the restaurant while the floor and roof were replaced and customers, including visiting U.S. lawmakers, continued to pour in. It also stayed open when hurricanes Isidore and Lily swept across the island in 2002. “We didn’t stop service for a minute,” Garcia said. “Everyone else closed. We got a lot of business because we were the only ones open.”
A chicken meal now fetches $12 - the monthly wage for the average Cuban - and includes rice, beans, fried potatoes and salad. Customers can eat all they want - and many do.
The magazine Cigar Aficionado says El Aljibe serves hundreds of pounds of “perfectly roasted chicken” every day. “The service is as fast and professional as a Parisian brasserie or New York grill. It’s one of the most popular restaurants in Cuba, not only for tourists but also diplomats, foreign businessmen and the small number of local elite.”