After pushing back its opening date several times over the past few months, Cuba Libre finally threw open its doors on Friday to reveal the Cuban wonderland that had been hidden behind paper-covered windows. Taking up a sizeable space at the corner of 9th and H NW, Cuba Libre (a mini chain with locations in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and Orlando) is bringing its blend of traditional and modern Cuban food to DC.
Realizing that it takes a few weeks to iron out the kinks, Cuba Libre is offering diners 50% off during the first week (October 1-7) and 25% off during the second week (October 8-13). The deal is good on food only from 4pm until 11pm nightly. We jumped at the chance to check it out for 50% off during the first weekend.
As soon as you enter, you'll notice the soaring facades that are meant to bring you back to Cuba of the 1950's. Since I didn't exist in the 1950's and I've never been to Cuba, all I could think was that this place would fit in great in Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. It wasn't overwhelmingly cheesy, but any place that does the fake courtyard/outdoor dining thing screams "Vegas!" to me.
Our Cuban adventure got off to a bit of a bumpy start when the hostess grabbed B's umbrella from him as soon as he walked in the door, and then there was a mixup with the price of the mojito I ordered while we waited at the bar for our table. Because it's their first week, we're going to overlook the other service oddities and just say that they appear to be working hard to smooth things out.
The bar area is impressively large and serves up 14 varieties of mojitos (all with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice) and a full array of other tropical beverages, such as caipirinhas and the namesake cuba libres (rum and coke). If you're a rum fan, you'll have fun working your way through the restaurant's list of 75 rum varieties. I loved my grilled pineapple mojito and B made quick work of his passion fruit mojito. Be careful as these fruity concoctions go down almost too easily.
The menu is divided into small plates called piqueos (which is Spanish for "overdone culinary trend"), larger appetizers, and entrees. We were told that the chain's "Concept Chef" and two-time James Beard Award winner, Guillermo Pernot, is famous for his ceviche. To properly pay our respects to his art, we ordered a tasting flight of all 5 ceviches. Our overall assessment was that 2 out of the 5 were "hits" while the others missed the mark. One, that featured shrimp, red peppers, and popcorn left us scratching our heads.
From the vegetable section of the piqueo menu, we ordered Bunuelos de Espinaca which were tasty little fried balls of cheese and spinach. They were good but if you mess up fried spinach and cheese, we've got serious problems.
Oh, and I promise those are spinach and cheese balls in the photo. It was so dark in the restaurant that photography was hopeless. Might be a good spot for a blind date...
We also shared the Guava BBQ Ribs. While listed on the appetizer section of the menu, the portion was definitely large enough to be shared or eaten by one light eater as a main course. The ribs were tender and the BBQ sauce had a nice tang, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not detect any guava in the sauce.
From the entree section of the menu we sampled the Cuban classic dish Ropa Vieja, which is much tastier than its literal Spanish translation of "old clothes." For the uninitiated, Ropa Vieja is shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce served over rice, and usually served with plantains. Cuba Libre's version was hearty and flavorful but was foiled by under-cooked peas. I think it would have benefitted from turning up the heat by adding peppers or hot sauce.
Though stuffed, I didn't want to turn down dessert (especially at 50% off!) so I ordered the rice pudding. The menu said the pudding was Mami Totty's recipe, and while I have no idea who Mami Totty is, the lady can cook up a mean rice pudding. There are people who love rice pudding (me) and people who only tolerate it because their spouse likes it (B). If you're in the former category, check out Cuba Libre's version and let me know what you think.
Second Thoughts From B
I applaud Cuba Libre for joining a downtown dining scene that seems saturated with restaurants that all have the same uber-chic, clean, minimalist interiors. I also welcome an option that seems to fit the middle ground between the Five Guys/Nando's of the neighborhood and the more upscale dining of Zengo/Oya/etc.
The problem I have is that a night at Cuba Libre would cost the same (when paying full price) as any of the more "foodie" options. The small plates were mostly $5-10, the appetizers $10-15, and the entrees were in the $20-$30 range.
The atmosphere is lively and unique, which makes me think it will become a happy hour favorite and destination for large groups. But for people looking for a nice night out with some great food, I think you could do better elsewhere at that price point. Nothing was particularly memorable. The flavors of several of the ceviches seemed to be muddled, the bunuelos de espinaca were rather ordinary wedding cocktail hour food, the ribs were very good but not unique, and the ropa vieja was far too similar to something we make at home in the crock pot.
In short, it seems like Cuba Libre fills the same role as lower-priced options such as the Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo; a fun place to go with friends with a diverse menu of good, but not particularly noteworthy food. So the question remains, are the tropical drinks and Vegas-style facades worth the premium?