Words By Joe Franco, Photos By Sarah Gerrity
I’ve never felt inclined to make my way into Cuba Libre. The Chinatown establishment on 9th and H always greets me on my drive down to 395, but rarely piques my interest. To be sure, it’s beautiful inside and out, but something about the façade seems to scream upscale Tex-Mex that might just edge out, say, an Uncle Julio’s.
That impression is misguided. Here, it’s Cuban classics with a contemporary twist. It’s a rum bar with over 90 varieties, five of which are made in-house. It’s a dedication to quality ingredients and precise cooking that found particular fulfillment in the hearty entrée our table shared. It wasn’t without its flaws, but Chef-Partner Guillermo Pernot’s new summer menu boasted some inventive flavors and a sublime finishing move that I would park my car to partake in again.
General manager Amnon Pick started everyone at the table off with what he billed as one of their signature summer cocktails, the Piscojito. This zesty little thang swaps the traditional rum for Pisco, a South American brandy, and combines lime juice and mint leaves in the way a traditional Mojito does. The big kicker here was the cucumber. Regardless of your opinions on phallic vegetables (I don’t prefer cucumber on its own), it added a new dimension to this bevarage that really made it shine. Our host explained that they also tear their mint leaves instead of muddling them, a process that is supposed to impart less bitterness (As a former bartender, you should really be slapping your mint -ed). The drink was crisp, tangy, with the perfect amount of sweetness. I wanted to take our table outside at that very moment. Drink this during the summer. Drink this.
We inhaled a gazpacho shooter that tasted like a chunky pico/tomatillo blend. Not bad, but tasted more like a salsa drink than a soup. The next palate whetter was the Mariquitas Cubanas, a black bean hummus with a radish salad that was more of a slaw. This, I think, was great, but left me with no distinguishable memories of its taste, mostly due to the fact that I have yet to meet a hummus I haven’t liked. I wish we got more. More paste, posthaste!
When they brought a basket of large plantain chips instead of pita to accompany the hummus, I had my doubts. My cultural background dictates that I should love plantains. Filipinos make lots of fried plantains. I’m not gonna lie though, I really don’t like things that taste like ‘naners. But with a crisp level somewhere in between Lays potato chip and communion wafer, these things were so good, the perfect vessel for a delicious dip’s journey to gobsville. Crispy is the best texture that exists in food, but when something’s been over-baked, you know how unsettling that burnt garbage mouth feel is. Not a problem here.
Next came an empanadita duo, both with great flakey crusts. The house empanadita was a simple chicken, corn and jack cheese affair with a braided shell. Fantastic. Somehow the corn makes it feel just refined enough to alleviate your guilt over choosing what’s essentially a meaty cheesy snack sack.
The second was the vegetarian Del Jardin, and if the gazpacho triggered some curiosities about their use of tomatoes, then this empanadita brought that concern to the forefront of my mind. The grilled artichokes and feta inside were excellent, a little bit of tang offset by a little bit of funk. I just could not get down with the salt cured tomatoes, which imparted far too much bitterness and sodium for my liking.
A ceviche tasting followed, and so did the acerbic haunt of the tomatoes. A bay scallop ceviche made with tomato, Bermuda onions, cilantro, jalapeño salsa, lime and olive oil was too tart, and the scallops were on the fishy end, with an undefined texture. The mushroom ceviche showcased a great range of textures, with a trio of royal trumpet, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms combining for both a supple crunch and satisfying sponginess in each bite. This was rewarding enough to overlook the acidity of the tomatoes that still permeated.
Then we had salad with chips in it. At this point in the meal it felt superfluous, but at least the greens were perfectly crisp. And to be honest it was a little refreshing to just have some basic grape tomatoes in this one, given my run-ins with such salty and sour alternatives.
A massive main came next when they laid out the Mar y Tierra Mixed Grill, a surf and turf marvel that will make mouths gape and forks cross like swords as you vie for the premium cuts. A Meyer Black Angus skirt steak was the gem. Cooked to an immaculate medium-rare, it was as tender as a filet and sparsely seasoned to let the natural flavor do the work. I also loved the squid and the petite Maine lobster tails that had a smoky char that rarely felt too ashy.
Feeling absolutely engorged and thoroughly hydrated, I was hoping it was time to leave. Some of my fellow diners acted on that impulse, and so doing, missed probably the best thing to reach our tongues that evening. Dessert was a Tres Leches cake with chocolate ice cream and fresh papaya, and holy crap did it make a believer out of me. The chocolate ice cream was perfect, not overly sweet, and no granular sugar taste in site. I despise bready desserts, but this cake was otherworldly: creamy, melty, flavorful and far from overindulgent.
In the end, I ate, and ate, and was happy to have eaten. If you’re in Chinatown looking for a serviceable meal and endless drink customization in a setting that won’t normally bring in Verizon Center riff raff or rowdy Rocket Bar and RFD patrons, you could do a whole lot worse than Cuba Libre. If you’re after a gourmand factor that’s off the charts, you may find a few missing pieces. But for an after-dinner drink and dessert option, I’m in, please and thank you. In my future, I see tres leches muchas veces. Adios!