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.
"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 cubano confidence 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...
On my first trip sur de los estados, Cuba Cuba's kitchen was running a seafood paella special. "You should really try it," the waitress said, as I polished off an appetizer of slightly sweet and totally addictive mariquitas with a tart, spicy lime-and-ginger sauce. "They don't do it very often, and it's really fantastic." She, like every other dark-haired lovely working the floor that night, had a smile like a mouthful of lightbulbs -- a thousand watts of warmth and welcome -- so I said sure, bring it on.
She wasn't kidding. A massive plate arrived bearing aromatic, saffron-infused, soft white rice studded with monster-sized shrimp, chunks of lobster and chewy bits of scallops, all topped by a pile of tongue-curling, citrus-marinated slivers of squid that were tender in a way I've never experienced before. They had the texture of perfectly done hard-boiled egg whites and none of that nasty, chewy, rubber-band feel characteristic of calamari in most Italian joints. And, yes, while I know paella traditionally is considered a Spanish dish, Cuban cooking boasts a long list of ethnic influences that have been assimilated over the decades. Those Spanish conquistadores brought more than just Jesus and syphilis to the New World, after all. They also brought their food -- olives and cheeses and such -- and when they were longing for the comfort foods of home, what did they whip up? That's right, a big pan of paella. The rest is food history.
In the kitchen, Enrique proves that he knows all the ins and outs of Cuban cuisine. He'd been cooking in Miami for seven years before his sister talked him into forsaking the beaches for the mountains, and he arrived in Denver eager to try both the Cuban dishes with which he'd grown up and the nuevo cubano cooking -- the new, more worldly styles he'd learned in Florida. His kitchen is as adept at turning out well-loved and fiercely traditional plates like maduros (unbelievably delicious fried plantains that taste like a more mellowed and refined older brother to the gushy-sweet banana) and the classic Cuban sandwich (made with slabs of tender pork, Swiss cheese and sweet mustard on chewy Cuban bread, pressed flat and grilled) as it is at working with newer influences. The vaca frita, for example, was a powerhouse of fresh Cuban soul made with a mojo of lime, garlic, cilantro and ginger that had been used both as a marinade to tenderize the stringy flank steak before it ever touched the grill and as a reduction at the end of the cooking process. The resulting flavor had all the subtlety of a punch in the mouth. It was strong enough to snap your head back and bring tears to your eyes.
On another visit, a dish of Bacardi-painted grilled mahi-mahi speckled with a cilantro drizzle was such a big hit that I worried I might have to stop one of my dinner companions from licking the plate. It came mounted on a pile of mashed boniato -- a white version of the sweet potato, but not quite as sickeningly sugary as the orange variety we're used to here, and with a drier, more mealy consistency -- that was a solid accompaniment to the light fish and buoyant glaze. But a side of tostones -- a double-fried plantain preparation adapted from the cuisine of African slaves brought from the Congo -- was not as successful. Dry and stiff, the tostones tasted like a cardboard box that had been used for shipping bananas.
While my friend polished off his plate of mahi, I worked my way through a disconnected dish of camarones al ajillo. At the center of the plate were a half-dozen huge shrimp, pan-seared until barely done and delicious; on one side was a mound of white Cuban rice, which was fine; on the other, three tostones -- and you already know how I felt about those. The real problem was the sauce, an otherwise tasty reduction of toasted garlic, lime, butter and white wine that didn't have the strength to pull the plate together. My guess (and that's all it is -- a guess) is that the sauce was flash-reduced -- meaning everything but the wine was cooked in one sauté pan over super-high heat, and then the wine was added at the last minute to the accompaniment of a huge mushroom cloud of flame and a near-instantaneous reduction and concentration of flavors. Flash reduction is necessary in any busy kitchen where speed is imperative -- but what you gain in cooking time, you lose in depth and complexity of flavor. This reduction didn't have the legs to keep up with the shrimp's juiciness and onion-garlic kick, or the punch to overcome the rice's blandness.
But then, that rice was just about the only thing that was bland at Cuba Cuba. The dessert menu offers more of the hot island decadence that is so central to this restaurant's success. More than a dozen light and dark rums are available as after-dinner drinks, along with a selection of cigars and desserts sweet enough to tempt you into a variety of sins. The Key lime pie was a restrained but powerful meringue-topped citrus explosion -- not the electric-green custard and Cool Whip served at most places -- and the tres leches cake was divine.
Cuba Cuba, which recently added sous chef Alex Eusivio (from Calle Ocho in New York City) to help Enrique in the kitchen, has also revamped its menu for the first time. Gone is the popular picadillo entree, as well as the croquetas de pollo, but Kristy thinks she'll be putting both back sooner rather than later. "The menu is so small, and we get so many requests for different Cuban dishes, that we had to make room somewhere," she explained when -- at the prompting of several Cuba Cuba fans -- I asked what had happened to the old favorites. "Really, there was no reason for replacing them other than to try some new things."
Cuba Cuba still has the buzz of a new restaurant -- that magic, infectious energy that some places lose after the first night and few can hang on to past three months. Everyone in this place is smiling. The customers, the staff, the bartenders -- even the busboys are obsequiously polite and friendly. According to Kristy, some of that attitude can be attributed to the fact that Cuba Cuba still won't take reservations: You just show up, hang out at the bar, and when there's a table, you get it. But more of it stems from Kristy's management style. "I run a kind of laid-back environment," she said. "Some places, the management can be on you about everything, but here I encourage my staff to have fun because if they're having fun, their tables will be having fun, and that's why people come here. They come here to have fun, not to complain. I tell them, 'Listen to a little music, have a mojito and enjoy.'"
And they do. If Cuba Cuba's loyal fans are to be believed, that's all it really takes to make it in the restaurant business: a little fun. Forget the focus groups and million-dollar ad campaigns, forget the consultants and the architects and the menu designers. Just have fun. Can it really be that easy? Take a trip to Cuba Cuba and see for yourself.
Oh, and while you're there, don't forget to stop by the bathroom. It's spotless.
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