Chokoloskee Island is a few miles south of Everglades City, and just outside the Everglades National Park. The island is an early land fill. The local Indians dumped shells in shallow water and after a couple of thousand years, give or take, they had formed the island, and had some more solid land on which to live. More important, they created a location for the excellent Havana Cafe of the Everglades. If you arrive by boat or airplane, they’ll come pick you up, but however you get there, you’ll enjoy your meal. Just to whet your appetite, here’s a tease of what’s to come —
Nancy and I hosted John and Helen Tierney for a few days in Marco Island, and drove down to Everglades City for a boat tour. John and Helen are both dear friends from college. John spent a lot of time in college hunting and fishing, among other activities we won’t go into, and after graduation John decided that what he wanted to do was hunt and fish. He moved up to Black Lake in the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, and hunted and fished. In his spare time, John also helped Helen start (and after 19 years sell) a restaurant in which Helen did most of the hard work. John also started (and recently sold) a natural gas company. John is still President of the board of a local bank, and he still hunts and fishes — in Michigan and points north and west in the summer and deer season, and in Georgia during the winter.
Helen started dating John our freshman year in college, and has put up with him ever since. Besides being John’s enabler in all his activities, the mother of Josh and Jason, and an ex-restauranteur, Helen is an accomplished artist. All of her accomplishments, however, are overshadowed by the fact that her father was Jay Berwanger. You youngsters haven’t heard of Jay Berwanger? My father, no respecter of persons, was absolutely thrilled to learn that I knew Helen Berwanger, Jay’s daughter. The mention of Jay Berwanger thrills many other people, especially people in sports bars.
Jay Berwanger, of course, was the Genius of the Gridiron, the One Man Team. He was the first winner of the Heisman Trophy; indeed, the Heisman Trophy is modeled after him, slumping socks and all. He was the very first player ever selected in the professional football draft. He was an early inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame. As a halfback, Berwanger ran, passed, punted, kicked off, kicked extra points, ran back punts and kickoffs for the University of Chicago, which had absent-mindedly wandered into the Big Ten some years before. In his spare time, he studied business, top to bottom. Berwanger (Jay, not Helen) was drafted by Philadelphia which immediately traded him to Chicago, where, it turned out, George Halas considered his salary demand ($12,500/year) outrageous. (“No player will ever make that much!”) Spurned by Halas, Berwanger followed the conventional University of Chicago career track and formed a highly successful manufacturing company.*
Back to the Havana Cafe and that shrimp dish. After our boat tour, we drove down to Chokoloskee to the Havana Cafe for lunch. Nancy had been there once before when I had to stay back and write a brief, and it was my first visit. It’s an inviting place, with a thatched roof, palm trees, and lots of vegetation.
There’s seating inside, but in February you really have to enjoy the outdoor seating beneath overhanging trees and whatever those flowers are. Bougainvillea? Jacaranda?
A guitarist played and sang Cuban music, and did both beautifully; and he kindly stayed put and refrained from going from table to table. The Havana Cafe truly is a lovely, lovely place for a meal.
And the food is just as good. I reflexively ordered Carlos’ Cuban sandwich and a side of black beans and rice.
John and Helen both ordered pork and onion sandwiches, which gave me a coveted opportunity to post shamefully unflattering pictures of them.
Nancy ordered Carlos’ Shrimp Plate — shrimp with tomatoes, onions, peppers and garlic, and graciously let me have a taste. It’s worth another look.
Doesn’t that look good?
Everyone liked their food, but Nancy was the winner. The shrimp dish was delicious. Chokoloskee and Everglades City rely on fishing and tourism. The seafood is as fresh as can be, and Carlos’ presentation was everything you could want from a blend of shrimp, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.
The Cuban sandwich was very good, even though they do not use the traditional mojo-sour orange marinade for the pork. There are many ways to make roasted pork taste great, however, and the Havana Cafe has found one of them. The menu says that Carlos’ Cuban sandwich includes serrano ham, which may be a polite fiction (serrano ham costs a fortune around here), but the Havana Cafe ham is exceptionally good, and it blends well with the flavorful pork and the cheese, pickle, and mustard. It’s not a “pure” traditional Cuban sandwich like the one at the Rumba Cafe in Naples, but it’s a very good sandwich, and I would order it again if I hadn’t tasted Carlos’ Shrimp Plate.
The sandwiches are big, and while the black beans and rice were good — good enough that I didn’t ask for Carlos’ hot sauce — I really didn’t need them.
The Havana Cafe is open only for breakfast and lunch, and only during the season –October 15 to April 15 — but then you aren’t going to the Everglades during the summer, anyway. And note: The only credit cards the Havana Cafe accepts are Discover and MasterCard. I thought everyone took Visa. If, like me, you only carry American Express and Visa, take some cash. It won’t take a whole lot. Prices are reasonable.
We’re headed back to Marco Island next month, and we definitely will go back to the Havana Cafe. Ella will be two then, and it’s time she had a Cuban sandwich. You definitely should go to Marco Island, definitely go to the National Park, and definitely go to the Havana Cafe.
And while you’re at it, click “follow” on our front page to receive blog posts in your email box. Or bookmark us and check in from time to time. If you’re planning a trip, you can “Search” the name of the city, state, or country for good restaurants (in Europe, usually close to sites, like the Louvre or the Van Gogh Museum, that you’ll want to visit in any event). Comments, questions, and suggestions of places to eat or stories to cover are very welcome. And check out our Instagram page, johntannerbbq.
*After Jay Berwanger graduated in 1936, the University of Chicago football program languished. Having determined that Nobel Prizes were more fun than Heisman Trophies (this was before the invention of the portable ice chest and the birth of modern tailgating), Chicago dropped football altogether in 1939. They absent-mindedly remained in the Big Ten until 1946 when they left with, I have been told, a right to return to the Big Ten whenever they like. (I will refrain from any snide comments about the Big Ten.) Football resumed on a modest scale at Chicago in 1969, although you may not have noticed.