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Unofficially the national drink of Cuba, the mojito evokes what fields of sugarcane and rows of tobacco haven't been able to capturea paradoxical island. A bit sweet and somewhat tart, it's concocted out of mint leaves, sugar, lime juice, seltzer, and rum. Having savored the standard at Havana's La Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway was known to fall off his stool, we called for an end to the embargo. Bush didn't listen, so with Papa's guidance we went in search for a local replacement.
Substitute waving palm trees, peeling porticos, and street musicians for the tourists, marquees, and traffic of the theater district, and head over to VICTOR'S CAFÉ 52'S CUBA LOUNGE (236 West 52nd Street, 586-7714). The restaurant opened its doors in 1963 as a home away from home for Cubans missing those pre-Fidel days. The barroomtucked away from the airy dining spaceis the perfect setting for an illicit rendezvous, with the '70s porn-house appeal of its crimson interior, velvet love seats, and gilded ceiling. On a recent Saturday night, most of the clientele were either out-of-towners or old Cuban men drinking so-so mojitos. Not only does the bartender prepare them in the kitchen (?!), but the mint leaves are wasted as floating garnish. (Purists insist the secret is to first crush the mint leaves with granulated sugar at the bottom of the glass.) Not all is lost though: Have yours with the Descubrimiento 1492 ($23.50)a platter towering with yuca, ham croquettes, chorizo, fried shrimp, and chicharróntop it off with a Montecristo cigar ($15), and you're in Havana heaven.
Don't bother sitting down at BABALU (327 West 44th Street, 262-1111). Like Gloria Estefan said, "the rhythm is gonna get you" at this swanky Tropicana-style nightclub-restaurant. A grand piano bathed in blue and pink light sits high on a stage overlooking a spacious dancefloor that beckons you to move (or grind, as evidenced by two señoras sandwiching a mustached bald guy last weekend). You can almost picture a rumba with Celia Cruz at the helm calling out her signature "¡Azúcar!" In between sets, try the strong mojito ($8), its flavor overpowered by Bacardi. Babalu adds a splash of 7-Up and some dark rum for a full-blown twist that'll have you tripping over yourself for another round. Just make sure you arrive before 10 p.m., when the club charges a $10 to $12 cover and stops serving specialty cocktails. In other words, go early, have a few mojitos, then sober up on the dancefloor.
Upscale beach shack ESPERANTO (145 Avenue C, 505-6559) keeps it simple. Blue and yellow walls and earthen floor tiles create a tropical breezinesseven in the mojitos ($6). Refreshing and fragrant, the Cuban cocktail is prepared just right. The bartender dutifully pounds the lime, sugar (not that syrupy stuff others use), and mint leaves, resulting in a delicious summer cooler. Pair it with a cubano ($8.50), stuffed with pork, pickles, ham, and mustard, and imagine the Creole women swaying along El Malecon as the late-afternoon high tide teases you with a spontaneous shower.