Cambridge is Hungry for Gustazo

You chose Gustazo as your favorite Latin American cuisine this year. Photo courtesy of Gustazo.

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When Chef Patricia Estorino and her husband Adolfo de la Vega opened their first restaurant—a small place in Belmont—it was a practical decision.

“I think we were just really, really hungry for Cuban cooking, and we couldn’t see many choices for that,” says Estorino with a laugh.

Both are natives of Cuba who came to America in 2001, when de la Vega received a scholarship to the Longy School of Music at Bard College. The couple now find themselves satisfying many more appetites for Cuban cuisine at Gustazo, where she runs the kitchen and he manages the house. The result of their teamwork has been embraced by the food lovers of Cambridge. And while there were many places to find good Latin American cuisine in and around the city before Gustazo, Estorino says she wanted to offer the kind of hearty, flavorful food she learned to cook from her family growing up.

“My grandmother was a fantastic cook,” she says. “I remember her in a tiny kitchen where she would make these amazing gourmet creations in such a limited space.”

And a couple of years ago, when her mother moved to Cambridge after the couple had a baby, Estorino was reminded of just how talented she was, too: “It was sort of like a new discovery of what a good cook she is.”

Now when she steps into Gustazo’s kitchen, Estorino strives to offer her guests both the honest style of Cuban home-cooking, and new interpretations of the ingredients her mother and grandmother relied upon.

If you’re new to Cuban food, she might suggest ropa eja, a shredded beef dish that’s cooked for a long time with sofrito—the Latin cousin of French mirepoix, a combination of garlic, onions, and peppers. Or she’d suggest arroz con pollo, a classic chicken and rice dish.

“I think it’s very hearty and flavorful,” she said of Cuban cooking. “It uses a lot of spices, but it’s not necessarily spicy. Everything has a lot of cooking processes and … I like to think of it as an honest way of making food.”

But she also loves to experiment. For instance, both her mother and grandmother would cook with cangerjo (crab) and cachucha peppers, which Estorino described as looking like a Scotch bonnet but without the heat. However, they weren’t something usually used in the same dish. Estorinobrings them together in enchiladas de cangerjo.

“It has nothing to do with a Mexican enchilada,” she explains. “It just means ‘cooked with chiles.’ I cook the crab with sofrito, allspice, cumin, and then we stuff the peppers with the crab and serve them with some watercress, shredded carrots, and beet crème fraiche. I think the crab and peppers are very authentic to Cuban cuisine, but not necessarily put together.”

Because the couple also both have a background in the arts, they wanted to incorporate that into the restaurant, as well. Thus, on the walls of Gustazo you will find reproductions of movie posters—but look closer and you’ll notice that while they look familiar, they aren’t the ones Hollywood released.

“In Havana we have a very vibrant arts scene in general. There’s an important film festival and an institute of cinematic arts,” she says. “They had artists that worked for the institute that would create original posters whenever a movie would be shown there from America, or from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. We find them quite special.”

With Gustazo winning over diners and their original location now in Waltham, not to mention a young child at home, Estorino said she and de la Vega feel like their plates are full.

“We are plenty busy now,” she says in response to an inquiry about future plans. “We’re very happy to be in Cambridge. I think it’s a very special city.”

This story appears in the Scout’s Honored 2019 print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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