Emmett Barr, owner of Buchi Cafe Cubano, is not an easy man to reach. When I called last Wednesday, he was cooking and too busy to talk. Same thing on Thursday, when I called after the lunch rush.
Friday, I got up early. Ridiculously early for me — 8 a.m. or thereabouts. Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I called Buchi, expecting the same brush-off. This time, though, I got lucky: Barr himself picked up. And he had a few minutes in the lull between the early breakfast rush (which starts at 6 a.m.) and the later crush of neighbors wandering in for their first hit of Buchi's amazing Cuban coffee.
So I started right in with the questions, asking first where he'd grown up to have such an elemental understanding of the food he now serves. "I was raised in Key West," Barr told me, explaining how he'd been steeped in Cuban food and Cuban flavors, picking up a love for the style and particular spice architecture of Cuban cooking almost by osmosis. "Cuban by infusion," more than one person has said about Barr, about his place. I think the staff at Buchi once wore T-shirts that said the same thing.
Barr stayed in the Keys, made a home, a family, a career there. He did some catering, worked at an Italian restaurant, a French one. He was already a restaurant lifer when he finally decided it was time to leave that unique little bit of paradise. Why?
One word: "Hurricanes."
Barr and his wife had just had a kid when the hurricanes hit in '05 — "a pretty busy season," according to Barr. He got tired of rebuilding his house and decided to hightail it for latitudes of a slightly more stable nature. And, of course, as soon as he'd found his way to Denver, he started looking for a restaurant of his own. That was three years ago. He found the spot on West 32nd that would become Buchi last year and promptly began planning the Cuban food he'd serve there.
"I was pretty confident that people would at least understand it," he told me. But he wasn't prepared for how much those people would love it — how much something so simple could be craved by people far removed from the Caribbean climate and mindset that created it.
After eight months, he's starting to get it — and making some changes for the long haul. For example, on the day I spoke to him, he'd just gotten his first shipment of wine and was waiting on his first liquor delivery — rum, in particular. The liquor license that'd made that possible (or at least legal) was so new that the ink hadn't even dried yet.
By the time this issue hits the stands, Barr will have been serving booze for all of four days and will be in the process of changing Buchi's hours — opening the doors a bit later (at 8 a.m. rather than 6 a.m.), and then keeping the doors open late (until 9 p.m.) Thursday through Sunday.
But while the hours will shift, he doesn't plan any significant changes to the concept. "I'm trying to keep everything simple," Barr told me, adding that he didn't know yet whether he was going to expand into dinner service. "I'm kind of concerned with people getting burned out on eating picadillo," he said. So he plans to rotate a couple of plates on and off the board, add a few apps (croquetas for sure, possibly tostones) and see how it goes.
For now, though, he's content to be "the little coffee and sandwich shop." In fact, there's just one thing he'd like:
"Eventually, I'd like to get some time off."
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To Havana and have not: Buchi isn't the only restaurant in town to be making a buck off the brilliant simplicity of the Cubano canon. Cuba Cuba, at 1173 Delaware Street, is a longtime pusher of the pig-and-plantain genre, and the subject of this week's Second Helping (see page 40). But fair warning: If you're heading to Cuba Cuba, be prepared to wait, even if you show up early. That place just gets busier every night, and often has a line of expectant diners running out the door.
If you're not up for a wait, you can always check out Mojitos, at 1120 East Sixth Avenue. The menu there hits all the high points of the Cuban recipe book (lechón asada, tostones, vaca frita and Cuban sandwiches), but there have been some issues with the service. Namely, just getting one of the eponymous mojitos from the bar can take for-fucking-ever.
All this thinking about Cuban food also had me remembering Cuba Libre, the enormous Cuban joint at 12684 West Indore Place in Littleton — a warehouse-sized operation that was absolutely chock-full of everything except customers. The chef there, John Daly, was someone I kept my eye on. After (wisely) leaving the now-defunct Cuba Libre, he turned up at the California Cafe and as a menu consultant at Reiver's before fading from the scene. Come to find, though, he'd nailed down a sweet gig in Larkspur as executive chef for the Bear Dance golf club.
Leftovers: Last Friday, Gemelli's — an Italian place I really liked, at 4363 Tennyson Street — was transformed into House. It's owned by two former Gemelli's workers, as well as a local vet, and specializes in contemporary comfort food.