I’ve never been to Cuba, but I imagine the sights, sounds and certainly tastes are pretty close, if not spot on, to Cuba Libre, located in DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood.
The restaurant and bar recently launched a brand new menu, featuring dishes and cocktails that take diners to the real roots of Cuban cuisine, coupled with an ambiance that gives you a glimpse of a night in Havana.
“We are trying to rescue the Cuban roots, but at the same time do something completely different,” said Executive Chef Angel Roque.
“Some people are doing really great things [with Cuban cuisine], but in my opinion most of them are trying the same croquettes, the same tamales,” said the Havana native, who previously served as head chef at Restaurant Café del Oriente in Havana. “We are trying to recreate the same concept and flavors, but with something new.”
Such new dishes to try include the Spanish-style blistered Padrón peppers, with flaky salt and a lemon mahonesa sauce. The dish is the perfect starter to a meal at Cuba Libre, as well as a delicious sharing plate among friends with cocktails at the bar.
Move on to the crab guacamole, hiding a surprise hit of added sweetness from grilled golden pineapple. Also, try the delicate ceviche de pescado, with Hamachi-yellowtail, organic-grape tomato salad and Thai basil vinaigrette; it bursts with fresh flavors.
Next, dine on the chicken croquetas, with creamy roasted chicken and a roasted cachucha pepper allioli. The use of the cachucha pepper – not as spicy as the habanero – and allioli sauce is a different take on the classic dish, and along with the perfectly creamy roasted chicken interior, takes the dish to the next level.
For entrees, eat the Pargo a la Plancha, an olive oil-griddled Florida red snapper with coconut-basmati rice and candied cashews, mango salsa and red curry sauce. Snapper and grouper are both used often in Cuban cuisine, and the mix of coconut and curry flavors goes beautifully with the snapper.
Also try the Puerco Cha Cha Cha, which is Roque’s way of bringing a celebratory Cuban pig roast to the diner. The dish combines three pork favorites in one jumbo cut, with a bone-in loin chop with meaty rib and crisp pork belly. It’s cooked perfectly – juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside, and served with boniato bravas, charred herb salsa and chipotle allioli.
And one cannot forget dessert, with my personal favorites being the classic tres leches, with a heavenly mocha mousse, and Cuban flan with a candied mango and papaya salad that truly elevates the traditional dessert.
Not to be outdone by the food, the cocktails at Cuba Libre are a refreshing escape, highlighted by a variety of housemade mojitos, caipirinhas and sangria, including my personal favorite, the guava caipirinhas (my-go to drink at Cuba Libre).
And you can’t forget about happy hour, with Cuba Libre’s sure to be a go-to for many over the warm months. Offered Sunday through Friday, from 4-7 p.m., with drink specials for $3.50-$6 including caipirinhas, seasonal cocktails, beer, wine and sangria; as well as $6 tapas bites including the amazing Padrón peppers, Cuban tamal, and ceviche de pescado, as well as croquetas and empanadas. You can also choose any seven appetizers for $35, to share among friends, or you could be selfish and keep it all to yourself.
Dinner menu pricing: appetizers are $7-$17; tapas are $16.75, $24 or $31 for a combination of any two, three or four; entrees are $19-$35; cocktails are $9.50-$13 outside of happy hour
Cuba Libre: 801 9th St. NW, DC; 202-408-1600; www.cubalibrerestaurant.com/en/washington