By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
The name is not Cue-ba Cue-ba. It's sexier than that, smoother. Say Koo-ba Koo-ba, and the words should slide off your tongue like you're sucking on silk. The sound should make you feel like putting on a white Panama hat and growing a pencil-thin moustache. That goes for you ladies, too.
Think heat. Think sweat. Think 98 degrees in the shade. Think red red lipstick and tight cotton dresses. Think of the thick, round flavor of a hand-rolled cohiba, its end dipped in brandy; the spicy pepper and garlic reek of sofrito; the click of ice cubes against your teeth as you knock back the last swallow of a Cuba Libre. What did it take to transport a little of this sultry Havana heat to Denver's Rocky Mountain soul? The same as it takes to get anything done in this world: a little luck, excellent timing and the love of a good woman.
The good woman in this case is Kristy Socarras Bigelow, owner of Cuba Cuba. And to that list of necessities add a lot of hard work, because when I called two hours before the start of dinner service she was, um, otherwise occupied.
1173 Delaware St.
Denver, CO 80204
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Central Denver
Mariquitas cubana: $6
Empanadas de carne: $6
Seafood paella: $23
Vaca frita: $14
Bacardi painted mahi: $19
Camerones al ajillo: $18
Key lime pie: $6
Tres leches cake: $6
"Can you hang on a minute?" she asked. "I'm right in the middle of cleaning the bathroom."
No problem. While I waited, I recalled something chef/author Anthony Bourdain said in Kitchen Confidential: Always check a restaurant's bathrooms, because customers actually see the bathrooms, and if a place can't even manage to keep those clean, think of what its prep kitchen must look like. Still, can you imagine Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque galley-mopping the men's room on a slow Tuesday? Or even someone as legendarily anal-retentive as Charlie Trotter getting down on his hands and knees to polish the grout? Hell, no. They've got people who do that for them. At Cuba Cuba, Kristy is the people who do that.
"All right," she said a moment later. "I'm all yours."
I hope her husband (as well as my darling wife) doesn't mind too much, but I fell in love just a little with Kristy in the twenty minutes or so that we spent on the phone. Or at least I fell in love with the idea of a restaurant run by her, along with husband Brian and brother Enrique Socarras, who commands the kitchen. First, there was Kristy's accent; I'm always a sucker for a woman with an accent. Second, there was the fact that she didn't get into the business for any reason other than a love of food.
"I always wanted to open a restaurant, but I was so scared," she told me. "It wasn't even in my family, but I always loved food and wine -- my grandfather raised me on wine -- and I'm a night person, and I love being around people, so..." Her voice trailed off as if the end of the story were obvious: You love food, you love wine, you love people, you open a restaurant and live happily ever after, right?
Kristy had also fallen in love with Denver when she came here to pursue a master's degree. Convinced that what this city needed was a real Cuban restaurant that served the food she'd grown up with, she walked around the Golden Triangle, took a look at (and luckily passed on) the cursed space at 12th and Speer that's a restaurant black hole (most recently sucking up Velvet, which opened and closed with barely a whimper), and then found two tiny adjacent wooden houses on Delaware Street that reminded her of the Caribbean. The vibe was right, the papers were signed -- and then came the hard part.
How much work did it take to transform these Denver landmarks (the structures are among the oldest in the city, dating back to the 1880s) into a little piece of her native Cuba?
"A helluva lot," she said. Eight or nine months, start to finish, including such small details as gutting both houses down to their frames, installing a restaurant kitchen, running gas lines and wrangling with the city's landmark commission over any changes to the exteriors.
But the big day finally came: July 27, 2001. "We opened the door to a two-hour wait on the first day," Kristy remembered, laughing. They also ran out of food midway through dinner and broke a glass that put the steam table out of commission for the night. "It was a disaster."
On its second night in business, Cuba Cuba didn't open at all: Kristy, Enrique and staff used the time to recover and reorganize. But gradually, things began running more smoothly.
"It took a couple months, but I'm really happy now," she concluded. "Now I know where I'm at."
So that's all it takes -- a good woman, luck, timing, patience, a sense of humor, a lot of hard work, and a real love for your food. But you know what else helps? A little cool cubanoconfidence that if you build it, they will come.
And, man, do they come. I made three visits to Kristy's welcoming island oasis, and the joint was jumping every time. Happy, boisterous people filled the house on the right that serves as the dining room, sitting under palm-frond fans and billowing folds of cream-colored cloth that hang from the ceiling, digging into appetizer plates of mariquitas cubana (fried plantain chips) and stuffed Cuban empanadas made of crumbly, lard-heavy dough stuffed with a picadillo of spiced ground beef, black olives, peppers, raisins and chunks of boiled egg. In the small bar to the left, seating is available along the wall or at a line of conga-drum tables that look like they were left there while Ricky Ricardo and the band stepped outside for a smoke. Most folks, though, seem to prefer standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, downing killer mojitos (made with rum, muddled mint leaves, rum, sugar, a splash of lime juice, rum and a little rum), wine glasses of brandy-sharp sangría, gallons of the ubiquitous Cuba Libre and a variety of other fruity cocktails that, in any other environment, would have seemed like ridiculous umbrella drinks, but here were taken seriously as a fundamental part of Cuba Cuba's transportive machinery. Can this place take you back to Old Havana without the drinks? Sure, but the trip won't be half as much fun...