"Cuba Cuba has allowed me to immigrate into the community and share what Cuban food is about, plus the music and cocktails," says owner Kristy Socarrás Bigelow. "I love my culture, but married a Denver boy and wanted to do something to bring my culture here since I was going to live here."
Bigelow opened Cuba Cuba in 2001, on July 27 — her birthday — in a pair of historic homes at 1173 Delaware Street, near the Denver Art Museum. Although the business is situated in two of the oldest houses in Denver, over the years Bigelow has worked to keep the space in good order and modernized enough so that Cuba Cuba always feels as fresh as an island breeze. For example, in 2017 she added a bright and airy covered patio that won a Mayor's Design Award that year, and more recently, during the pandemic shutdown, she redid the bar.
"It's easy for me to take good care of it. It was my first child," says Bigelow, who also has three human children. "When I saw the houses for the first time, they reminded me so much of the Caribbean homes where I had been raised on and off for years. Maybe they aren't exactly like my family's homes in Cuba, but there was this old charm that I thought would be perfect to house the restaurant."
Bigelow didn't grow up in Cuba — her mother left the island for the States in 1959. But the Cuban neighborhood and people who surrounded her in Florida truly made Miami feel like the island's stateside sister. Spanish was spoken at home, meals consisted of traditional Cuban food, and all of her friends were Cuban-American.
As much as she loved her life in Miami, though, she wanted to see other places, and at one point decided to go snowboarding in Breckenridge for a couple of weeks. Those weeks turned into two seasons, and she got a job waiting tables, her first foray into the restaurant world. Eventually she moved to Denver to get a master's degree in social work. Around that time, she met and fell in love with her future husband. But she missed the Cuban culture she grew up with.
"Living in Denver was hard. I wasn't living near my family, my heart," says Bigelow. "Cuba Cuba allowed me to create a home in Denver, long before I bought a house."
When the restaurant opened, there wasn't a large Cuban population in Denver, and there certainly weren't many places serving authentic Cuban cuisine. Bigelow's half-brother, Enrique Socarrás, stepped in to help, bringing with him recipes that their grandmother had cooked. Socarrás set up the kitchen, built up the space and trained cooks to make dishes like ropa vieja, empanadas and vaca frita, a dish of marinated flank steak that's crisped up and served with sautéed onions, rice, black beans and maduros (fried plantains). Overall, says Bigelow, around 80 percent of the menu is the food she grew up eating.
On a recommendation from her father, Bigelow added mojitos, another item that wasn't typically found on menus in the city. Now Cuba Cuba has a full mojito bar, with flavors such as mango, ginger and coconut, as well as a cocktail list chock-full of tropical drinks crafted by barman André Dixion. There's also rum — around ninety bottles ranging from local spirits to French-Caribbean rhum.
While the menu remains solid, so, too, does the staff. Many members have been there for years, including general manager Robyn Gray and chef Carlos Nava, who started as a dishwasher over a decade ago and was trained to make Cuban food by Socarrás.
Over the past two decades, Bigelow also launched Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria, which now has six locations. Its specialty is the classic Cubano, a sandwich with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and thinly sliced pickles. But the real star of the sandwich is the bread, which comes in frozen from Miami.
"I proof and rise it here," says Bigelow. "I've tried for years to make it here, and it just didn't work."
At the original restaurant, the nightly vibe goes beyond just good food, energetic music and a vivacious staff. What Bigelow set out to build twenty years ago was a place in her Denver home that felt like her Cuban Miami home. And once she and her guests pass through that pink door and go into the house that contains Cuba Cuba, there's no doubt that it's been — and will continue to be — a success.