Hansen: The sweet smell of Communist smoke

There is a famous story about President John F. Kennedybuying more than 1,000 Cuban cigars the day before he authorized the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in 1962.
Knowing full well what he was doing, he did it anyway — insider cigar trading for personal gain.
Now more than 50 years later, Cuban cigars are still beloved, carrying an undeniable reputation and mystique, which is why there are Cuban cigar shops in the U.S. even though they don’t sell Cuban cigars.
In a strange, accepted form of advertising, we don’t seem to mind.
“No other Communist country is promoted as a business in the U.S. like Cuba,” said Douglas Kang, co-owner of Cubana Cigars in Laguna Beach.
Admitting it’s a unique situation, Kang said that perhaps the reason rests in the quality of the cigars.
“Cuban cigars are unmatched,” he said. “Cheap cigars get bitter as they get shorter.”
Once you’ve had a great cigar, Kang said, “it’s hard to go back.”
So what is it about Cuba that makes us so enamored?
There are no North Korean barbecue restaurants in the U.S.
No Pol Pot party stores.
OK, maybe that’s not quite the same.
But we have made something normal that is entirely abnormal, or at least unfamiliar to most people: Cuba and Cuban cigars.
Kang’s lounge sits enticingly on the second floor of a small building at 1400 S. Coast Hwy. It is, most likely, the only place in Orange County where you can smoke a cigar, drink a glass of wine, catch a ballgame and watch an ocean sunset all at the same time.
Approved smoking ordinance. Approved beer and wine license. Approved Cuban culture.
“The vibe is very casual, very Laguna Beach-ish, not very pretentious,” Kang said.
It’s as if you’re sitting on someone’s private deck with oversized patio furniture, flat panel TV and brews in the fridge.
Guys — yes, mainly guys — hang out as you would expect, cajoling, unwinding, networking and telling stories.
It’s not a huge tourist place — primarily regulars, some with their own cigar lockers.
If you know your cigars, you’re probably smoking Cohiba, Davidoff or Padron. The more expensive cigars in this shop range between $25 to $40. But there are many more approachable ones for less than $10.
“The best cigar in 2012, according to the magazine Cigar Aficionado, was the Flor de las Antillas,” Kang said. “It was about $9. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.
“It’s the complexity of flavors,” he said, trying to describe why people like cigars. “It could be earthy, have hints of chocolate or vanilla if they flavor it.”
Now, “Cuban” cigars are made in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Honduras or Dominican Republic.
With the weather heading toward summer, Kang and his business partner, Russ Farokhian, will start up Tuesday night poker; cigar and wine tastings, and some live music on the weekends.
In the meantime, we are left to ponder what it means that this little slice of Cuba sits on the West Coast, far removed from Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.
In case you’re wondering, the U.S. military stationed at Guantanamo can’t smoke Cuban cigars either, but they do wear T-shirts saying, “Close, But No Cigar.”
Everyone loves Cuba and its cigar. It’s as if the ban, the inexplicable embargo that now seems quaint, has cemented its mystery — like when you tell boys not to do something, they want to do it more.
Someday, we won’t have Cuba to pick on. We will finally grow tired of it all and conveniently allow international trade, or maybe Cubans will grow tired of Communism.
Either way, when the news arrives, the biggest headlines won’t be about the fall of Cuba; they will be about the liberation of Cuban cigars.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached atdavidhansen@yahoo.com.