By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
I was not born in Florida, thank God. I did not grow up there. I actually spent only a short portion of my life in the Sunshine State — a few months buried to the eyes in the damp and lizard-infested sloughs — and most of that time was spent slaving away in the murderous heat of some of the most embarrassing, deranged kitchens I have ever known. I never once saw the beach, had only a glancing association with the nearby ocean, and when I got home from work rarely wanted to do anything more than wring the humidity out of my brain, strip naked and drape myself bodily over the vents of the nearest air conditioner. On those few nights when I managed to peel myself off the carpet and mule-kick my up-North metabolism into something approximating a down-South footing, I would drive into Tampa or out to some swampy shitkicker bar in the distant exurbs, pant like a dog, sweat like a congressman and try to pretend for a few hours that every breath I took wasn't like drowning a little bit at a time.
I didn't experience Florida in any traditional sense, but I still know Florida. I know it the way a man remembers his first marriage to a shrew (hyperbolizing the bad, perhaps, but finding an emotional truth in the exaggeration), the way a convict can recall the precise dimensions of his cell many years after having been sprung. And I am not exaggerating when I say that I loathed nearly everything about my time in America's dangling wang.
Save for the Cuban food.
2651 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Driven by a need for something sweet to reward myself for surviving another night in paradise, on a few memorable occasions I found myself hauling up in front of some garishly lit storefront or street-side stand, where I'd wilt onto a stool or into a metal tube chair and get Cuban coffee as a pick-me-up — served either boiling hot, in a wide white mug, rich with steamed milk and smelling of burnt sugar, or black as death and offered by the thimble, sipped as a restorative shot of pure, vicious energy. It prepared me for what followed: the bright flares of picadillo, black beans and rice, Cuban arroz con pollo and croquetas fresh out of the fryer and bleeding grease through three layers of butcher paper; Cuban sandwiches and more Cuban coffee and pots of ropa vieja prepared as family meals with pure, wild-eyed genius by line cooks who would otherwise spend the rest of their work days steaming potatoes and frying fish dinners for rubes.
As much as I hated Florida, as much as I loathed the heat and the damp and the bugs and the tourists and the hot rain and the green and fecund stink of that detestable swamp full of fried fish, lizards and pain, I hated the food more. There may have been outposts of goodness and decency, but I was not given those addresses. What I think of instead when I think of Florida in the mid-'90s is one enormous Fisherman's Platter that stretched clear from one coast to another, a million chain restaurants, the worst sins of California cuisine writ hugely across pizza crusts covered in lamb and olives — a wasteland of bad ideas and suck broken only here and there by the food of ex-pat Cubanos. So as much as I hated Florida and its theme restaurants, I would get in the car right now and drive thousands of miles just for the promise of, at the end of the trip, an odd, beautiful moment in some side-street cafe where the first tinny blast of refrigerated air and the first sip of a burnt-sugar cafe con leche or cortadito combined to make the next minute or hour or day seem almost survivable.
But fortunately, I never again have to consider that demon's bargain, never have to weigh the benefits of a proper Cuban sandwich against the detriments of death by simultaneous drowning and spontaneous combustion. Because rather than me having to ever, ever go back to Florida, a tiny bit of Florida has wised up, broken free from its geographic prison and traveled west to Denver, where it's planted its flag as Buchi Cafe Cubano.
There is virtually nothing to this small storefront space in northwest Denver, which is as it should be. A patio out front, soft yellow walls, a couple of framed prints of things Cubano, a counter, a few tables, a coffee machine, a small kitchen tucked away in a closet in the back of the room, a cash register. The plates are paper, the utensils plastic, the sandwiches that make up the bulk of Buchi's menu delivered wrapped in waxed paper — quickly and with little fuss. As at a proper barbecue restaurant or a good hamburger stand, there is nothing to distract you from food that's gorgeous enough on its own, food that stands as both goal and ultimate reward. All is quick, all is casual, all is almost transient in its impermanence (with little left behind on the finished tables but empty bottles of Limonata and Materva and the crushed papers of sandwiches like cast-off snakeskins). In fact, the two most solid things at Buchi are the plain white cups in which is served what I swear has got to be the best coffee ever, and owner Emmett Barr standing in the back, between the kitchen and the register, overseeing his tiny piece of transplant paradise.