Denver isn’t home to many Cubans or Cuban-Americans; there are fewer than 6,500 in the entire state of Colorado, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. As a result, the number of Cuban restaurants in the metro area can be counted on one hand. There’s Cuba Cuba, the breezy, upscale eatery built from two conjoined Victorian houses in the Golden Triangle, along with its spinoff sandwicherias in Boulder, Glendale and the Denver Tech Center. In Sunnyside, you’ll find the quaint Buchi Cafe Cubano, which serves up strong coffee and outlandishly named sandwiches like the Aye Conyo (don’t ask your Spanish teacher for a translation). And over in Lakewood, Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe has been making ropa vieja, empanadas and sandwiches on fresh-baked bread since 2011.
Aurora, too, has its lone Cuban outpost: Cuba Bakery & Cafe, which got its start in a tidy shopping center at the intersection of East Mississippi Avenue and South Chambers Road two and a half years ago. Owner Orlando Colombe opened the bright, pastry-packed spot after moving to Colorado from Florida for a change of pace.
Colombe is no restaurant rookie; he operated three Cuban bakeries in Miami in the 1990s and 2000s before things ended disastrously there. “I got robbed and shot in the back,” he explains.
His recovery was slow, and by the time he’d returned to work, his company was beyond recovery. A visit to friends in Denver convinced him that a fresh start was in order, so he and his wife moved here a few years ago. They immediately noticed a shortage of Cuban cuisine, so once Colombe’s health was restored, they decided to re-enter the restaurant business, opening their bakery in October 2013.
Aurora caught on quickly to Colombe’s baked goods, pastries, sandwiches and Cuban entrees. He counts the city’s Puerto Rican community among the cafe’s regulars and notes that “70 percent of my customers are Americans who know Cuban food or who moved here from Florida.”
The Florida connection is important not only for building a customer base, but also for capturing the traditional flavors and textures of Cuban food. Colombe had to reformulate his bread recipes to account for Colorado’s elevation and dry air, and he also brings in flour from south Florida, since the standard flour available here doesn’t result in products his regulars would recognize as authentic.
He also special-orders smoked sweet ham, guava paste and Cuban cooking wine from Florida, noting that most ham available here is too salty for the famous Cubano pressed sandwich. The guava paste goes into pasteles de queso — flaky guava and cream-cheese turnovers — and other sweet treats.
Breakfast at the bakery starts at 8 a.m. with cafe con leche and one of those buttery pasteles. By lunch you may be craving a deep-fried empanada filled with chorizo, ropa vieja (slow cooked beef and vegetables), ham and cheese or chicken. But for a unique specialty, try the yuca croquettes stuffed with seasoned ground beef. If they’re not labeled in the pastry case, just point to the little golden-brown cylinders that look like deep-fried Twinkies. Yuca is a root vegetable popular in Caribbean and Latin American cooking; the boiled and mashed yuca (also called cassava) produces a light and fluffy purée that rivals mashed potatoes in flavor and creaminess. If you’re more into potatoes, though, there are also fried potato balls filled with ground chicken.
The shop closes at 7 p.m. nightly, but if you head in for an early dinner, full entrees are available, including braised oxtail, pork chops with onions, and toothsome lechon asada — slow-roasted suckling pig that’s a close cousin to Southern pulled pork.
Still, the biggest draw may be the array of pressed sandwiches, all featuring pillowy housemade Cuban breads. The traditional baguette-shaped loaf is a pale tan with a papery crust when it comes out of the oven, but when pressed and grilled, the outer surface becomes crisp and the interior flattens and melds with the juices of the pork and the molten Swiss cheese. Along with the classic Cubano (with ham, slow-cooked pork, cheese, yellow mustard and pickle), there’s also a medianoche — identical but for the bread, which is a creamy yellow due to the addition of egg yolks to the dough. Other options include a steak sandwich, a pressed tuna melt and a fun sandwich stuffed with those cylindrical croquettes.
Desserts range from individual flans to fruit-filled jelly rolls to layered and frosted cakes. Colombe does a brisk business with party-sized cakes, too. Tropical Cuba may be a world away from Colorado, but the homey, traditional flavors of the island nation (by way of Miami) are only a short drive into suburban Aurora.