Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Clarissa Villondo
Cuba Libre has been in D.C. since 2010, but it feels much longer than that. Considering the rapid fire changes this city’s culinary scene has been through, seven years can feel like a century. Running a restaurant in 2010 and running a restaurant in 2017 are two different beasts, and Cuba Libre has real competition for the first time. Colada Shop, a fast casual sandwich joint on 14th Street may not seem like it’s in the same league as the sit down restaurant, but they’re both vying for a similar space in the easily distracted mind of your average D.C. diner.
Thankfully, Executive Chef Angel Roque’s secret weapon is his simplicity. Cuba Libre isn’t trying to be fine dining, nor is it trying to be take out. It hits that middle spot. Perfect for large parties and lovers of meat. If you’re sick of steakhouses, Roque’s menagerie of meat dishes will hit the spot. If you want a taste of some classic Cuban dishes you didn’t know about, it has your back. If you’d rather sit at the bar and order appetizer after appetizer, that will work too. Cuba Libre can be what you need it to be.
If you’re doing the latter, I recommend the Sandito Mojito. A combination of Brinley Gold Shipwreck spiced rum, watermelon juice, guarapo and lime juice. It’s a little sweeter than your average mojito due to the watermelon, but my lord does it go down easy. This is the very definition of a patio pounder. Need a snack to go with it? Grab a Cuban tamal. It’s a good mixture of savory and sweet and has the perfect texture. Likewise, the chicken croquetas are a good choice. Served with a roasted cachucha pepper aioli, it’s warm and home-y and the perfect level of crispy. There is also the Cthulhu-esque crab gaucamole, if you want something to show off to your Instagram followers. I think I’d prefer this dish if it skipped the crab all together. Guacamole by itself is amazing, you don’t need to throw in sweet crab meat when it’s only going to be drowned out by the guac.
If you’re looking to get all of your daily protein in one meal, any of the meat choices should satisfy you, but my personal favorite was the hilariously named Puerco Cha Cha Cha. Featuring three different cuts, there’s a bone-in loin chop, a meaty hunk of rib and a slice of crispy pork belly, all covered in a charred herb salsa. It’s served along side potatoes drizzled with a chipotle aioli. It’s meaty, meaty goodness. It’s meat heaven. It’s probably going to kill someone. Runners up include the Vacio Steak Argentina (grilled Argentine-cut bravette steak, Moros y Christianos / rice and beans, tostones, and Argentinean chimichurri) and the Crispy Pork Pata (Berkshire pork shank, grilled seasonal vegetables and a citrus pan reduction).
Finish it all off with a Banana Bread Caramelo (banana and chocolate goodness) and a cafe Cuba Libre and you have yourself a meal. Just try not to fall into a food coma on the way home.