The oldest buildings in Denver—that’s where Todd and I had a late dinner Friday night.* Cuba Cuba restaurant in the Golden Triangle consists of two houses soldered together. And the sloping, spongy floors certainly showed their age. But the wall of talk that greeted us as we walked in to put our names on the list was as young and vibrant as the crowd—and, well, rather impenetrable.
At that point we beat a quick retreat to Gallery 1261, which was much quieter, and had cake for an appetizer. Only the first of the evening, it would turn out.
When we did return after an hour, we scored a table in the corner of the left-hand house near the bar and ordered mojitos. What else would we order? They were strong and refreshing and packed with mint. Not just mint: it turned out that an uninvited guest had hitched a ride—one of those small brown beetles whose back looks like a geometry problem.
I didn’t scream or anything. After all, it wasn’t a cockroach or a spider. And I was even happier after I showed the waitress and she brought me a new drink and didn’t charge us for any of our drinks. “That’s awesome!” she said, about the bug on the mint.
Which is the vibe you’d expect from a Cuban restaurant.
Turns out we could have looked at art for another half hour. About 8 o’clock we got a table in the right-hand house, where the volume was more conducive to talking. When our croquetas de jamon came, they were delivered by a no-nonsense woman who informed us, “Your server is right there,” when we informed her we were ready to order.
And she was right there, with red lipstick and black braids but still managing to resemble Heidi.
I am not a fan of ham. So for me the main attraction of croquetas is the contrast between the crispy-fried outside and the squishy inside. Oh, and the novelty of putting something as pretty as that dark-red croqueta between two saltines.
I ordered the Picadillo, which is really the Cuban cousin of Sloppy Joes. It’s ground beef in a sofrito base (onion, garlic, tomato, pepper) with raisins and potatoes, served with rice and maduros (fried plantains). The maduros were wonderful, but the meat was a little too salty and had two raisins, as far as I could tell.
I much preferred Todd’s lechon asada. The pork was wonderfully tender, and I kept stealing bites of his rice with black beans.
The last time Todd and I had Cuban food was at Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine in Fort Lauderdale, where we’d flown to scuba dive and celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. We ordered croquetas there too, so I must be a hypocrite about them. Todd had a monster meat plate, and I had grouper in a cream sauce, which was good.
In my two experiences of Cuban food, I have yet to be blown away. But that seems ridiculous—like going to a couple of Mexican joints and ordering, say, fajitas and tacos, and then deciding Mexican food isn’t for me.
I’ll keep hoping there’s more to discover, and try Cuba Cuba again sometime.
*According to Robin Riddel Lima of the Native American Trading Company. Of course, the first building in Denver was supposed to be a saloon. But she didn’t say “first”; she said “oldest.”