Monday, April 25, 2011

Cuba Libre - A Ticket to Havana

Growing up in New York, it was easy to access delicious Latin cuisine for not much money. That said, if I ever have to pay more, I better be getting something else out of the experience. With Cuba Libre, I got delicious food, affordable prices, and a ticket to Havana.

Walking into the space, you're literally transported to the tropics. As you enter, you pass through a dark curtain to find yourself at a dark bar--one that has great happy hour specials ($4 bites, $4 drinks), 5-7PM, Monday-Friday.

As soon as your entire party has arrived, you can wander into the restaurant, with its high ceilings, palm trees, and Old Havana decor. If you choose, you can sit up on the second floor, where tables wrap around and overlook the main dining area. Otherwise, you can sit in the shade of the palm fronds on the first level, or in the more intimate spaces in the back.

Regardless of where you are, the atmosphere of the restaurant is lively, with both smaller and larger parties chatting and laughing over mojitos and capirinhas. The drinks menu is extensive, and the last time I made it to Cuba Libre (around the holidays), I remember my dinner date being very impressed with the authenticity of his drinks. In addition, the restaurant is known for its rum collection, so that should certainly be tried if rum is your liquor of choice.

On my most recent trip, my out-of-town friend and I decided to sample a few aperitivos rather than tackle the larger platos (of which the Paella Nueva and Camarones con Cana are absolutely phenomenal, by the way). Not only did this strategy give us the opportunity to try several smaller dishes, but it also left us with room for our post-dinner Max Brenner adventure! (Priorities, folks, priorities.)

Because April was Empanada Month, we decided to sample the Empanada de Langosta Eclipse, an empanada made with black corn dough, filled with Maine lobster and coral butter, and accompanied by a mango escabeche salad and passion-fruit citrus mojo. The dish was well-balanced in terms of tastes and textures, with the black corn giving the empanada structure and crispness, and the rich filling being cut by the tangy mojo.

To satisfy our need for chips and dip, we went with the Mariquitas Cubanas--a trio of dips (black bean hummus, smoked marlin salad, and eggplant spread) and a trio of chips (plantain, malanga, and yuca). The chips came with a matte finish, betraying none of the oil that was most likely used to get them to their perfect crispness. While the dips were well-seasoned, they arrived in extremely small amounts, which left us wanting after just a few chips.

Thankfully, our meal came with delicious toasted bread and mango butter. When we ran out of dip, we simply covered the chips in mango butter, which truly tasted like mangoes. In no uncertain terms, the best condiment of the night!

For our protein selection, we went with the Guava BBQ Ribs. And as a BBQ connoisseur, I really enjoyed the fact that the meat didn't fall off the bone. My thought is: If the meat is going to fall off the bone, then why give me the bone at all? I like to work a little for it! That said, the meat was still very tender and well-seasoned. And while I'm not a big fan of BBQ sauce, the ribs had just enough glaze that the acid from the guava cut through the richness of the meat.

Even without the entrees, we were very much sated by our selections for the night. Better yet, the bill came out to no more than $35 for the two of us. Considering that it costs more than that for one person to eat at Alma de Cuba (of which I'm not a fan), that I felt like I was eating in the tropics (without the mosquitoes), and that I was more than full by the end of the meal, I'd say Cuba Libre will definitely be seeing more of me in months to come.

Cuba Libre
10 South 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

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