Buchi Cafe Cubano is a great Cuban restaurant. Step inside Cuba Cuba on a good night, and you need an oxygen tank (or a powerful constitution) because the air in the bar is like breathing muddled mint and rum.
But while Denver has some Cuban restaurants, what this city does not have is enough Cuban restaurants -- because, really, no city can truly have enough until there is one every fifty feet or so, all serving Cuban coffee and sandwiches and boiled chicken with rice and whatever else it is that gets the people of Cuba through their days. If we had as many Cuban restaurants in Denver as we have taquerias, I might be satisfied. But then, if we ever reach that magic number, we'd pretty much all be living in Havana and then I would start bitching about the lack of Japanese robata bars or Uruguayan cafes or whatever and we'd have to start all over again.
And what few Cuban places we did have in Denver was recently reduced by one, with the closing of Mojitos. And while Mojitos was never the best of the bunch, it still saddens me to know that we're now one joint closer to none in a city that doesn't have a very large buffer separating me from a complete lack of decent Cuban sandwiches.
I have a feeling that the space Mojitos occupied won't stay dark for long. It's just too good a location -- situated as it is right in the middle of Sixth Avenue's restaurant row. And while I don't for a minute believe that someone will try to come into the address with another Cuban concept after one just tanked there, Staffing Up is all about wish fulfillment. So that's what I'm going to do: Give the city of Denver a great Cuban restaurant resurrected over the bones of one that was just okay. How to do this? With the proper staff, of course. Starting with just the right chef.
Chef: Enrique Socarras, no contest. He's the brother of Kristy Socarras Bigelow, founder of Cuba Cuba, and no offense to the staff that's kicking ass there now, but in the early days, you could always tell when Enrique was in the kitchen and when he wasn't. The man just had some kind of magic for making picadillo in particular. I loved Cuba Cuba when he was cooking, merely liked it when he wasn't. And now that the crew there seems to have staffed up, I think they can spare him.
(Frankly, I would've loved to give the gig to Emmett Barr from Buchi, but I'm being selfish. Because without Barr in that little closet he calls a galley, Buchi would collapse and then I would have nowhere to go for Cuban coffee and pork sandwiches. I just ain't gonna let that happen.)
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SHOW ME HOW
Sous chef: Chad Clevenger from Mel's down in Greenwood Village. He's been looking for a second restaurant. He's got family ties to Florida. Give the guy a partnership interest and three slots on the menu (two apps and one entree) in which to get all weird with his fluid gels and compressed vegetables, and this one's a winner. I would love to see what a guy with Clevenger's training does with the simple foods of Cuba, on another peasant-gone-fine-dining menu (with a strong hand to guide him through the pitfalls of some of the more complicated spice architecture of authentic Cuban cuisine). Clevenger is really the kind of guy who needs the right place and the right menu to shine, and a strong gestalt to work within. This could be it.
Head bartender: James Lee from the Bitter Bar at Happy (formerly Happy Noodle House). If you've ever had one of his drinks, you'll know I'm right. And to turn him loose on something as over done and ubiquitous as the mojito? I'd love to see what he came up with.
Roundsman: John Daly, formerly of Cuba Libre. Remember Cuba Libre? Yeah, probably not. But while he was in that kitchen, Daly cooked some mean Cuban grub for an essentially empty dining room. Imagine what he could do for a full one.
Pastry: The crew of the Cream Puffery, another long-gone restaurant, this one formerly operating in a beautiful location overlooking Boulder Creek. I'd enjoy seeing their guava pie and pastelitos and flan (not to mention their ropa vieja) on a menu again.