Chef Carlos Nava began working at Cuba Cuba 14 years ago, as a dishwasher. He worked his way up to head chef and has been running the place for almost eight years. This has given him time to perfect each and every recipe on the menu.
But the one he spent perhaps the most time on was the camarones al coco. The original head chef, Enrique Socarras, created this dish, but it took a while for it to become a best seller.
"I messed with it on and off for over a year. I knew it could be a favorite and I loved the flavors. So I added ginger, played with the spices and began offering an option to make it spicy or not," explains Carlos.
His experimenting paid off. For the past five years, it’s been one of the best selling dishes every night. Owner Kristy Bigelow says, "It’s interesting because it’s probably the least Cuban of everything on the menu. It’s almost Caribbean in its flavor, a little tropical. I’ve heard people say that it’s one of the best things they’ve ever eaten and it makes them feel like they are on vacation."
The curry-like base for the dish is made with carrots, celery, onions, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, pickled ginger, and Sriracha. This is added to fresh vegetables and shrimp sautéed in sesame oil. The key to the texture is the reduction time Carlos gives the sauce. He allows it to cook into a creamy base that pairs perfectly with the garlic mashed potatoes.
"You really have to watch this dish though. It needs time to thicken, but if you leave it on the heat too long, the oil and coconut milk begin to separate," says Carlos. It seems they have it down to a science though, selling more than 20 each night.
"I feel like this dish fits the vibe of the restaurant. It matches the music and the decor and even the other food. It’s definitely different than the rest of the menu, but Carlos has created something that fits in seamlessly," says Kristy.