24 Mar 2015

Review of a Cuban paladar: Don QKo is worth the drive to Cárdenas!

The following is a review I wrote that has been posted on TripAdvisor (here), along with eight of my photos and reviews by others who also loved this little gem of a restaurant, near Varadero. For your reading convenience, I've copied my review below and added a few different photos than you will find on TripAdvisor….

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While visiting in the Matanzas province of Cuba recently, I had the pleasure of exploring Cárdenas and dining at an excellent paladar called Don QKo. This privately owned restaurant is billed as “an Oasis in the City of Cárdenas” and the title is quite accurate.

The original Don QKo, Alexeis' grandfather. 
Owned and operated by Alexeis Padrón and his family, this culinary oasis was named for his grandfather, whose nickname was “QKo” or “cuco,” which translates to “cuckoo.” Although the inference to most English speakers is that a person with such a nickname would be a little crazy, the Spanish word is used to imply that someone is shrewd, canny or a “wily bird.” In Spanish, of course, “Don” is a title of respect.

All of the tasteful decorations and furnishings of the elegant and charming restaurant have been personally chosen or created by Alexeis and his father Jesus Padrón (also known as QKo, like his father before him). Indeed, this father-and-son team takes a very hands-on approach to all aspects of their business; I found Jesus painting the baño when I went to make a pitstop!

Their attention to detail is apparent everywhere and, according to TV reporter Patricia Karina (Alexeis’ wife), the Padrón men have done much of the work themselves – not just the painting. The main areas of the restaurant are primarily done in yellow and black, with floral arrangements, interesting artwork and touches of red and green accent colors throughout. Most of the tables and chairs are classic black wrought iron but some of the other furniture was custom made.

Approximately 100 people can be seated at one time, outside on the patio or inside in the bar/lounge area or one of the small dining rooms, if a more intimate setting is preferred. The patio encircles a little pool and is dotted with lush plants. It also has a decorative fishpond at one side and affords a view of the kitchen, Alexeis pointed out, so people can see their food being prepared.

One of the inside dining areas, elegantly decorated.
The menu options range from traditional roasted pork (a specialty of the house) to a selection of seafood, all prepared and presented with great care. As I was speaking with Alexeis, in fact, I could watch one of his chiefs at work, carefully slicing meat to be roasted on the open-air grill. In addition to their delicious food – I had a sumptuous serving of roast pork with an excellent, savory sauce – the bar offers a nice selection of drinks, including another house specialty: a mojito with a twist. It’s quite tasty but I won’t give their secret away by telling you what the extra ingredient is; you’ll have to visit Don QKo to find out!

Founded in 1828, Cárdenas is not far from Varadero and could be considered a bedroom community for that bustling beach burg. It is one of Cuba’s most affluent cities and, with a population of close to 81,000, is the 15th largest in the country but, perhaps ironically, it has very little tourist accommodation. The city of Varadero, on the other hand, has less than 30,000 year-round residents, but tourists perpetually populate its many hotels and eateries.

Dining on the patio by the pool is a great evening option.
Those who want to escape the crowds, explore new terrain and give their tastebuds a true treat should plan a visit to Don QKo in Cárdenas, which is about 30 km from Varadero. Located at Ave. Céspedes #1001, esq. Calle 21 (at the corner of 21st Street), you can take a private taxi or, if you are feeling more adventurous, a public bus. If you wish to get more specific directions, call the restaurant: (045) 52 4572.

Meals are typically served from noon until 11 p.m., and they’re closed on Tuesdays. I was there for a late-afternoon lunch and it was quite quiet but, in the evening, when the lights go on and the live music begins, the place is much busier. Therefore, if you want to be assured of a seat, especially if you have a group, I would encourage making a reservation.

I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with the service, cuisine or ambience at Don QKo. It’s a delightful dining oasis that is definitely worth the drive to Cárdenas!

A copy of this famous painting adorns a wall in the lounge.
– Jenny Cressman


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