I don't think there's any such thing as a slow night at Cuba Cuba anymore. It used to be that if you showed up early enough on a weekday, you could be assured of getting some kind of table. Maybe not the best in the house, maybe not the one you wanted, but something. But right now, Cuba Cuba is that rarest of creatures in the restaurant industry: a fully booked house.
I stopped by last Thursday at six o'clock, barely into the evening. And yet, at the door I was told, "No tables available, no space outside." What was left were a couple of stools at the already crowded bar and one high-top in the lounge (which I took) — the wait already starting to back people up onto the front lawn of what used to be nothing more than a pleasant, single-family house in the Golden Triangle.
What's filling the book at Cuba Cuba when so many other restaurants are begging for trade?
First and foremost, it's the killer mojitos — made with such muddling violence and in such volume that every breath in the front room comes seasoned with mint. Second, it's the vibe — joyous tunes on the radio, laughter hanging in the rafters, and the vital thrum of a room happily operating at peak capacity.
But finally (and ultimately), it's the kitchen. Though Cuba Cuba has gone through some ups and downs since Kristy Socarras Bigelow — a Miami native whose family came to this country from Cuba in 1959 — opened it eight years ago, the galley right now is in ascension, capable of capturing both the gritty peasant reality of Cuban cuisine and its potential to be gently translated into something sublime. Onions and sofrito, pork fat, plantains and mojo — these are all powerful toys with which a kitchen might play, and Cuba Cuba's line uses them to (mostly) good effect. I wasn't crazy about the tasteless yucca fritters with avocado crema, but got better results when I stuck with the classics. The Cuban sandwich, though not as brilliant as the one at Buchi Cafe Cubano (reviewed on page XX), was still a solid contender. And the lechón asada was even better than the dish I'd loved so much at Buchi. The trick here was a careful ramping-up of the flavor: big slices of onion, sautéed to near translucency, and the addition of a perfect garlic mojo that made the tender pulled pork a real standout — even when measured against excellent sides of white rice and black beans made amazingly flavorful as they soaked up all that sauce and pork jus on the plate.