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It was a cold night in Boulder when Laura and I walked out of Rhumba, the three-year-old Caribbean stepchild of the Jax/Lola/Zolo Grill family. The sky was silvery-gray, like old steel, with clouds hanging close over the Flatirons and a mean wind whipping scraps of newspaper, cigarette butts and crushed Starbucks cups into mini- tornadoes. The weather had been edging toward ugly when we'd ducked into the casual, island-themed hot spot for a meal that we hoped would make us forget the hard skies and chill wind, and now -- with dinner done and both of us feeling stuffed -- it was downright nasty.
Conch chowder: $4.50
Crab cakes: $9.95
Pork dumplings: $6.95
Conch fritters: $7.95
Salsa sampler: $4.95
Rhumba curry: $14.95
Cuban sandwich: $9.95
Fish tacos: $12.95
Laura and I held hands. She offered me her coat because I'd left mine in the car, and got a look at my face.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing," I lied.
"You've got that look again. What did you think?"
That look. After a couple of years as partners, the girl is getting pretty good at reading me. She hates talking about movies right after leaving the theater but has no such issues with food. If she loves a place, she'll start gushing almost immediately, and when she hates one, we have to rush out quickly to make sure the front door is fully closed before she starts tearing into it. With me, it's the opposite. The first words out of my mouth whenever we leave a movie theater are always "So, what did you think?" But with restaurants, I'm taciturn. I hold my tongue, because it takes me a few hours after the last plate has been cleared to fully process what went down.
"I don't know yet," I told her.
"You're going to murder them." She darted away to throw the leftovers that we'd had boxed into the trash, then came back. "That's what 'I don't know' means."
"No. Not necessarily. It wasn't all bad."
True, it had been a bad meal in a dozen ways. But it had its redeeming qualities.
For starters, I like the space. Rhumba has an unforced funkiness, with its partially bare cinderblock walls, pseudo-psychedelic art pieces and stylized prints of Fidel and Che. I like the lacquered particle-board tables and blonde-wood-on-black-iron chairs, the sinuously curvy stone bar that fronts the exhibition kitchen, where you can sit and watch the cooks doing awful things to your dinner. Actually, I liked the whole bar portion of our Rhumba evening, including the well-thought-out wine list that's far too fancy to be paired with mediocre cuisine; the house cocktail list that may be on the pricey side ($6 for a mojito or a mai tai) but offers tall drinks mixed strong; and the servers who are at least capable of smiling and efficiently delivering a cold Red Stripe to a thirsty restaurant critic, even if they can't drop off a plate of fish tacos without poking a thumb in the salsa.
And not everything coming out of the kitchen is bad: They can cook rice. The first test laid on any rookie on his first night in a new house is to make rice; if he can't do that without asking for instructions, then he lied on his resumé and will be sent packing. But if he can -- if he knows one part rice to two parts water in a hotel pan and knows to pull that pan from the oven or steamer at just the right moment -- then he's salvageable; he can be taught the rest. And somebody back in Rhumba's prep kitchen is clearly capable of cooking rice. Jasmine rice, ginger rice, cardamom rice -- didn't matter. It all hit the plate as white and fluffy and delicately flavored as rice should be.
Also, proving that there's someone in the back who can cook more than just rice, the black beans that came alongside it on almost every plate were very good, too. They were tender and nicely spiced, kicked up with a little something (considering the atmosphere, I'm guessing rum) for flavor, and given that extra bit of attention that elevated them from another throwaway side dish to the best parts of most of the dishes. The same solicitous concern had been lavished on a pair of excellent blue-crab and halibut cakes, as well as a good, sweet cornbread with compound butter that was a welcome change from the ubiquitous sliced boule. So, yeah, someone in the house can cook. It's just a shame that someone doesn't cook everything.
It was when our second appetizer -- a selection of three salsas with thick-cut plantain chips -- arrived that things started to fall apart. The ancho-tomato salsa was fine, sweet with just a little spice, but the chipotle tomatillo had no flavor at all; it was like green water with just a squeak of heat. And while the scotch bonnet/corn version was hot, as promised, the salsa itself was old and desiccated.
The main courses suffered like orphans from a lack of attention. They exhibited none of the crab cakes' care or the attentive tuning of flavors represented in the rice and beans. Every bite showed how they'd been untended and totally unloved. There was the pressed-pork sandwich -- a Rocky Mountain riff on the sea-level Cuban sandwiches I lived on in South Florida -- made with tomato, Jack cheese and tender pulled pork on Cuban bread. Trouble was, I couldn't judge the quality of the pork through the blinding fog of spices and couldn't tell if the bread was really from a solid, lard-intensive Cuban loaf, because rather than being weighted and pressed, roughly and quickly, on a hot flat grill, this bread had just been burned.
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