A woman dressed in purple is sitting beneath the Havana skyline, her shoulders dipping and swaying to the Cuban music pouring through the speakers. "Que rico!" she shouts after taking a bite of a rib. "Like Florida!" she exults, holding out the coffee she's just sampled, her body continuing to move to the beat.
At each delighted outcry, Sergio and Roxanne Negrin temporarily abandon their posts and head to the counter that divides the kitchen from the dining area, to share a story and a laugh with the woman – as well as everyone else who happens to be seated in their tiny, twenty-seat restaurant. It's cold outside, but inside Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe, the atmosphere is downright beachy.
Before long, Sergio walks out from behind the counter and takes a seat at our table. There's no table service at Frijoles – you order at the counter – but we've been waiting for a third person to join us, and Sergio has decided that it's time we make a move. "You must have a cafecito," he says, grinning. I'm won over immediately – he could have sold anything with that smile – but when my over-caffeinated friend protests, Sergio slaps him on the knee. "Oh, but come on. You've got to try it."
My friend relents, and Sergio soon delivers two espresso cups painted with the Cuban flag and holding tiny shots of coffee, thick and strong and sweet. He also introduces us to the couple's son, then tells us why the family left Miami. "It's just too crazy down there now," Sergio says. "I didn't want my kids to be there anymore." And then he tells us about the restaurant they opened in this Lakewood strip mall five months ago, how everything is homemade — except a few cookies and candies imported from Cuba — and how tricky it is to make authentic Cuban bread in the dry Colorado climate.
After listening to Sergio describe the food, we can't hold off any longer. We step up to the counter, where he is now back on duty, and order a guava and cheese empanada. He confesses that he has a soft spot for this combination, and insists that he make a fresh empanada, since the last one just disappeared from the pastry case minutes earlier. As a result, we get it straight from the fryer, the crackly pastry encasing a molten combination of sweet guava paste and tart cream cheese. It's delicious.
Our friend finally arrives, and we return to the counter to choose a shareable spread from Frijoles' concise roster of Cuban classics, sandwiches and nightly specials, with Sergio suggesting the best ways to supplement each item. "Definitely get the fries with the ribs," he says. "They're both finger foods." And with the steak? He recommends moro y maduros, a combination of rice and beans served alongside sweet plantains.
Returning to our table, we sip from cans of yerba mate and pineapple sodas (Frijoles has no liquor license) while the Negrins make our meal — occasionally taking a break to greet someone who's walked through the door or collect another order at the counter. Still, their son soon delivers our dinner, and we waste no time diving in.
I first go for the pulled-pork sandwich, the tender shreds of meat slathered in a sweet, peppery barbecue sauce and heaped on a soft roll. It's very good, but I wish I'd asked for some pickles; a tart complement would make the pork even better. The contrast works well with the Cubano sandwich, a traditional stack of roasted pork, ham, melted Swiss cheese and pickles pressed between two pieces of dense white Cuban bread that have been griddled until crunchy and then slathered with mustard. This is an excellent version of a Cuban, elevated by that marvelous house-baked bread.
Next up: the skirt steak, pounded flat and grilled until well-done, the traditional temperature for this dish. While the preparation may be traditional, I'm not a fan of the leathery texture it gives the beef — but I love the marinade that's permeated the meat with the zip of garlic and heat of chile; more minced garlic has been spooned on top of the steak. The rice and beans — moro — are also redolent with the flavor of garlic and onion, and the savory blend is so satisfying, I can see why so many people in the Caribbean make a meal of rice and beans, especially when the dish comes with the added contrast of sweet, caramelized slices of plantain, or maduros.
The best dish, though, is that night's special: smoky, succulent pork ribs, roasted until tender and then coated in a thick guava sauce that's both earthy and sweet. Sided with a substantial pile of salty shoestring fries, the plate is the very essence of Cuban comfort food. I eat with my hands and then lick my fingers clean.
Sergio calls to us from across the counter. "You like it?" he asks with another big grin. Our mouths are full of pork, so we can only nod happily in response.
When we return to the counter to order dessert, Sergio notices that we haven't cleaned our plates (the portions are very substantial at Frijoles). "You didn't finish dinner so you could eat dessert?" he ask, and laughs. "You and my wife should be good friends."
Yes, we should: Because not only does Roxanne apparently have an affinity for desserts, but she knows how to make them, too. The sweet, creamy tres leches cake -- soaked with condensed milk and paved with freshly whipped cream — is superb. So is the flan, made from an old family recipe that results in a caramel-rich dessert textured more like cheesecake than the typical gelatinous lump of custard.
We're full to the point of exploding, but still linger for a moment to chat with Sergio, who takes a break from cleaning up the kitchen for the night to give us a proper sendoff. By the time we walk out the door, we feel like part of the family.
It was family that brought the Negrins here, and family that made this restaurant possible. Soon after they moved to Denver from Florida last year, Sergio and Roxanne found this spot, which had been sitting vacant after the last tenant, a deli, closed its doors. With the help of Roxanne's mother, Ana, the couple inked a deal on the space, then remodeled it and opened Frijoles in September. The restaurant is often filled with family, the entire clan working or visiting, speaking with each other and customers in a passionate mix of Spanish and English.
I watch the action when I return for lunch: a mountain of lechón — slightly spicy braised pork served with more moro and a few blocks of boiled potato-like yuca mixed with caramelized onions. I'm so amused by the familial haggling over tasks and techniques that I stretch out my meal with another empanada, this one packed with ropa vieja – soft, shredded skirt steak cooked in a tangy tomato-based sauce that Frijoles also serves as a special one day a week.
As I take my last bite, it's all I can do not to shout "Que rico!" over the din.