El Chanchullero

E: In one of the rare moments that we were online, Michelle annotated El Chanchullero on our map. Her handwriting, neat printed caps, smeared on the slick surface of the paper. From Jose Marti Bellas Artes, we headed south, towards Plaza del Cristo. Across from the square, El Chanchullero is undistinguished, one restaurant among a few nondescript storefronts on the block. We pass it, crossing through sunlit Cristo, another quiet street. “If we can’t find it,”  I say, “Let’s just go back that way. I saw a place we might could check out.”

We double back. The place I’d seen is, in fact, El Chanchullero, a small tapas restaurant with a buzz. Sunlight pores into the entryway, a space of exposed stone that narrows back to a small bar, recessed in the shadow. The place is bustling, couples sipping, sharing meals at tables. Underneath the staircase is a low table; a group of friends encircled, laughing over drinks. The service staff, constantly moving, tease and flirt among each other, hustling and having fun. The energy, even midday, is fraternal.

Others head straight upstairs to the overhead dining area, but Michelle and I stall in the sunlight, eyeing a table.

M: “It’s good,” a man says. “We are done, not waiting.”

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M: El Chanchullero is a hip space. Mechanic overalls and a t-shirt are the uniform. “I can see why this is on a Thrillist list,” I say. It is the only bar in Old Havana on our list left untackled. The walls are pasted with international dollar bills and graffiti. Wooden tables line the room and the bar lacks significant space for seating. We commandeer a recently vacated two-top near the door to catch the fresh air in the wooden den.

E: Our server—he sort of looks like Mario in his grey tee shirt and blue overalls—greets us casually, in Spanish, dropping off a letter-folded piece of white printer-paper. It feigns official-correspondence; inside, the menu, is printed in courier font. It’s all in Spanish; we take a gamble. I think I’m getting vegetables. I know, for certain, I’ll be having a caipirinha.

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M: Saying yes to tapas with a menu in Spanish means that Lizzie has vegetables and scrambled eggs and I end up with a plate of warm sausages when I thought I was ordering a sampler. Okay. We nibble, the flavors on point, but the portions more that of an entrée than tapas. Our first round of cocktails is a caipirinha and piña colada. My piña colada is sweet and balanced, blended perfectly and through the straw too easily. I exercise self-restraint to avoid a brain freeze, a tactic learned at Floridita. Lizzie’s caipirinha is boozy and full of limes, tart and refreshing. We swap orders for round two, coveting the flavors in one another’s drink.

Unsure why it took so long to deviate from daiquiris, this mid-afternoon rum buzz is in a variety of cocktails, and always, rum.
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