When I go out to a “paladar” (Cuban privately-owned restaurant), I prefer those places where in addition to good food you can enjoy a nice drink. In this sense, Don Qko (pronounced coo-coh) is one of the places that has truly lived up to my expectations and more, with an added bonus of impressive natural surroundings. Situated in #1001 on Avenida de Cespedes Street, Cardenas’ main artery, this venue is a true referent point in the city’s gastronomy and an absolute must for lovers of good cuisine.
From 12th August 2012, Cardenas’ residents and many tourists have enjoyed Don Qko’s service. It’s no coincidence that this is one of the largest and better known restaurants in the whole of Matanzas. After visiting on several occasions with family and friends, I can personally guarantee that Don Qko’s offers are just as good (and in some cases better) than that of the chic restaurants in nearby tourist hub Varadero, Cuba’s most important sun and beach destination.
The name’s origin
Owners Jesus Padron Rodriguez (Cuquito, diminutive of “Cuco”, an endearing term for people called “Jesus”) and his son Alexis Padron Ruiz, decided to name the place after “Don Cuco”, the patriarch of the family and former sugar production worker during his lifetime. This family member worked in an old sugar cane factory by the name of “Progreso”, which today has been transformed into the Sugar Museum, an interesting site I will soon invite you to visit. Like any good Cuban, Don Cuco loved a plentiful a dinner table, a love he transmitted to his descendants who decided to preserve his memory through this restaurant.
It is precisely the portrait of Don Cuco Padron that greets customers and workers from an artistic mural set in a convenient and strategic spot. With a warm smile, this character welcomes the delightful soirees and dinners the restaurant hosts every night. Many famous Cuban artists frequently visit Don Qko and treat clients to delightful performances.
Most outstanding offers
Although I sincerely love every single one of the dishes they serve, I highly recommend visitors to try their delicious Mar y Tierra (Surf n’ Turf), an exquisite combination of varied meat and seafood. Other frequently requested and delectable dishes include their special Chinese fried rice, large beef steak with onions, their distinct paella and, my personal favourite, bistec uruguayo (pork meat stuffed with ham and cheese).
Don Qko’s hors d'oeuvres, garnishes and desserts have caused a sensation. For this reason, a great number of chefs, restaurant owners and hotel entrepreneurs from Cardenas, Varadero and Matanzas have added several of the restaurant’s dishes to their menus. Among all the delights Don Qko offers, I prefer their chicken salad, their “Terrina 1001”, a dish made of corned beef and dried fruit with lemon sauce as well as their delicious “tostones” (fried and flatted plaintain) stuffed with ham and cheese. However, if I had to pick just one of these marvellous plates, I would pick the “Terrina 1001”.
Drinks do not pale in comparison. You can try varied cocktails made from top-quality Cuban rums and other imported liquors and drinks, as well as a great range of ice cream flavours, sodas, natural juices and beer. Their best cocktail: the famous Cuban mojito, which is impeccably elaborated and refreshing.
Prices hover around $15 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) per person. Although reasonably-priced for a foreigner, these prices are quite expensive for most Cubans, who usually attend this restaurant on special occasions. Don’t be surprised if the day of your visit you find locals celebrating birthdays, work promotions or wedding anniversaries.
Other interesting aspects
Among several other honours, Don Qko has received the Traveller Choice award presented by Tripadvisor. It is currently situated in first place on the list of Matanzas’ restaurants. The owners, who are members of Cuba’s Culinary Association, have participated in various events sponsored by group “Excelencias Gourmet en la Isla y el Extranjero” (Gourmet Excellence in the Island and Beyond) as well as several editions of Cuba’s International Tourism Fair.
The next step for Don Qko is obtaining the Quality Award presented by the nation’s Tourism Ministry, a prize they are currently trying to win.
In the meanwhile, if you’re visiting Varadero or making plans to visit soon, I open-heartedly invite you to enjoy a delicious dinner with friends or family in this gourmet heaven, situated just only 9 kilometres from Varadero and already considered, by many specialists, a truly excellent restaurant.
Address: #1001, Avenida de Cespedes Street between 21st and 22nd streets (entrance through 21st street), in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba.
Opening hours: 7 pm-11 pm.