Adis Romero tossed a heaping scoop of crushed garlic into the foaming butter and gave the skillet a shake. A moment later, like an echo, the garlic aroma rolled over the kitchen.
She had laid the foundation for the sauce that makes pollo moderno (“modern chicken”) Soul de Cuba’s most popular dish.
Romero (pictured below), who has been cooking at the nine-table Crown Street restaurant since it opened in 2005, called pollo moderno a twist on the cuisine that she spent a decade cooking in her native Cuba.
“That’s something different that we’re trying to make here,” she said of the sauce. “But we’re still using the same ingredients we got from Cuba.”
The construction of the sauce was a high-speed process, a series of pre-cut ingredients added by the spoonful and tossed over a high flame that licked around the edges of the skillet.
After the garlic and a dash of salt came two tablespoons each of diced red onion and black beans. Then came three spoonfuls of chopped mango and generous squirts of pineapple juice, guava juice, and Castillo rum, the last of which set the contents of the pan violently ablaze.
The sauce in place, Romero left it to reduce as she assembled the rest of the dish. She ladled and spread an enormous mound of white rice onto a plate before turning to the chicken breast, which she had already removed from the deep fryer before beginning the sauce.
“We have chicken like this in Cuba: breaded, fried,” she said, though the authenticity of the extra-crunchy panko breadcrumbs went undiscussed. She deftly sliced the chicken breast into strips and then, using her chef’s knife as a tray, slid it as one unit atop the rice. Next to the chicken she placed two plátanos maduros, or fried sweet plantains.
Finally, the climactic moment: Romero brought the skillet over from the stove and spooned its contents over the chicken until it was nearly invisible beneath a steaming, golden blanket.
A garnish of chopped parsley and two scoops of stewed black beans completed the dish.
“We love black beans,” Romero said with a smile, after it was observed that the ingredient appeared both in the sauce and on the side.
A reporter checked his watch incredulously: the whole process, minus the prep work (mainly chopping the sauce ingredients and breading the chicken), had taken five minutes, or about as long as it would have taken him to peel a potato.
When tasted, pollo moderno turned out to be a powerful fusion of contrasting flavors and textures. The chicken, juicy on the inside, was dark and crispy on the outside, and the sauce combined deep, fruity sweetness with the savory acidic bite of onion and a dose of garlic that promised to linger on the tongue for hours. The plantains were delicately blackened at the edges but molten and dessert-sweet on the inside.
Asked to identify the distinctive qualities of Cuban food, Romero paused for a moment. Then she placed both hands over her heart. “It comes from here,” she said.