• Sunday , 21 January 2018

Step into Cuba in Old City and Taste Cuba Libre’s Never-Ending Menus

Story, photos by Cassie Hepler

There’s some sort of teleportation device inside Cuba Libre.

No, seriously. It’s as if you step inside and immediately are transported into Cuba. Don’t take our word for it. Take sous chef Angel Rafael Roque Gomez, an esteemed blue-eyed, blond haired Cuban Chef now working with Chef-Partner Guillermo Pernot.

“It feels like home here,” said Gomez. “And we try to make the food taste that way too.”

Rolling out some seasonal new menu items just in time for summer dining, this Cuban restaurant is a staple in the city known for its amazing happy hour specials (Monday through Friday, 5-7 p.m.) and Latin dancing on Saturday nights. And if Old City is too much for you to handle, try the spacious and accommodating location in Atlantic City at Tropicana.

Taking away some of the heavier fried fall and winter foods, the chefs are featuring grilled meats and seafood, barbecue glazed ribs, unique twists on classic (unlimited!) brunch items, flavorful empanadas and salads that incorporate seasonal vegetables.

“For me, summer is the best time for grilling, enjoying tropical cocktails, and sharing meals with friends and family, which was the inspiration for this summer menu,” said Chef Pernot. “I’m so excited to introduce new, seasonal menu items and bring back some old favorites (likeGuava BBQ Ribs), and I know that guests will enjoy all that Cuba Libre’s new menu has to offer, and feel just as if they were dining out in Old Havana.”

You have to start the meal off right with their popular mojitos. One regular and one grilled pineapple and both go down like delicious juice. Also very tempting, the over 90 choices to choose from rum flight.

You have to start the meal off right with their popular mojitos. One regular and one grilled pineapple and both go down smooth like delicious juice. Also very tempting, the over 90 choices to choose from rum flight.

The sauces are part of the delicious Cuban culture. We went dip crazy with the Pineapple Guacamole Cubano with chunky avocado, grilled golden pineapple, roasted jalapeños, fresh lime juice, extra virgin olive oil and crispy plantain chips. Plantain, malanga, yuca chips and a trio of dips including earthy black bean hummus, meaty Haitian eggplant salad and Cuba Libre salsa.

The sauces are part of the delicious Cuban culture. We went dip crazy with the Pineapple Guacamole Cubano with chunky avocado, grilled golden pineapple, roasted jalapeños, fresh lime juice, extra virgin olive oil and crispy plantain chips. Plantain, malanga, yuca chips and a trio of dips including earthy black bean hummus, meaty Haitian eggplant salad and Cuba Libre salsa.

Our view before things picked up out to 2nd Street in Old City. We liked the inside/outside feel and the air conditioning that went along with it.

Our view before things picked up out to 2nd Street in Old City. We liked the inside/outside feel and the air conditioning that went along with it.

A medley of empanadas and ceviche, a little light fish and some heavy grease are a nice balance. We did the Ceviche Mixto, a flight of tuna, shrimp and bay scallop. The tuna was chunky, pink and so fresh and the sweet spicy sauce on the fresh, crisp shrimp was addicting.

A medley of empanadas and ceviche, a little light fish and some heavy grease are a nice balance. We did the Ceviche Mixto, a threesome of tuna, shrimp and bay scallop. The tuna was chunky, pink and so fresh and the sweet spicy sauce on the fresh, crisp shrimp was addicting.

Mamá Amelia’s Empanadas, choice of four option all served with aji-sour cream dipping sauce including: • Del Campo: Pulled pork, roasted poblano, charred tomatoes • Picadillo: Ground beef, Manzanilla olives and raisins • De la Casa: Hand chopped chicken, corn and Jack cheese • Del Jardín: Grilled artichoke hearts, salt cured tomatoes, feta cheese

Mamá Amelia’s Empanadas, choice of four option all served with aji-sour cream dipping sauce including the Del Campo with pulled pork, roasted poblano, charred tomatoes, Picadillo with ground beef, Manzanilla olives and raisins, De la Casa with hand chopped chicken, corn and Jack cheese (my favorite) and Del Jardín with grilled artichoke hearts, salt cured tomatoes, feta cheese (my second favorite). Think Hot Pockets except 10 times better and fresh.

Time to take an inside tour. Nothing transports you out of Philadelphia faster than palm trees!

Time to take an inside tour. Nothing transports you out of Philadelphia faster than palm trees!

Up the stairs to the second floor where the dancing takes over on weekends.

Up the stairs to the second floor where the dancing takes over on weekends.

Looking down from the second floor to the first floor below.

Looking down from the second floor to the first floor below.

A vertical view to see the palm fans and stained glass ceilings high above.

A vertical view to see the palm fans and stained glass ceilings high above.

The upstairs bar is always packed on weekends.

The upstairs bar is always packed on weekends.

A classic Cuban street scene mural painted in the back of the second floor bar.

A classic Cuban street scene mural painted in the back of the second floor bar.

Concordia means harmony or literally translated "with one heart".

Concordia means harmony or literally translated “with one heart”.

Happy hour at the bar was buzzing by 6 p.m. We wonder if they should expand the bar through the curtained walls.

Happy hour at the bar was buzzing by 6 p.m. We wonder if they should expand the bar through the curtained walls.

Even though we wanted the rum flight and everything on the dessert drink menu, we opted for a potent and mouth puckering Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail made with Cachaça, sugar and muddled limes. This one was Pineapple-Basil with Velho Barreiro Cachaça, Licor 43, pineapple juice, fresh basil and packs quite a punch.

Even though we wanted the rum flight and everything on the dessert drink menu, we opted for a potent and mouth puckering Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail made with Cachaça, sugar and muddled limes. This one was Pineapple-Basil with Velho Barreiro Cachaça, Licor 43, pineapple juice, fresh basil and packs quite a punch.

Arriving in steam and sizzle, the the new Mar y Tierra Mixed Grill for Two, a sizzling “surf and turf” skillet with all-natural Black Angus skirt steak, Maine lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, St. Louis cut pork ribs, pork loin, Cortez chorizo sausage, marinated squid, and served with jalapeño chimichurri, “Mojito” salsa verde and salsa criolla. Everything was grilled and flavored to perfection, no sauces needed in our opinion. Served with white rice and some plantains.

Arriving steaming and sizzling, the the new Mar y Tierra Mixed Grill for two, a sizzling “surf and turf” skillet with all-natural Black Angus skirt steak, Maine lobster tail, jumbo shrimp, St. Louis cut pork ribs, pork loin, Cortez chorizo sausage, marinated squid, and served with jalapeño chimichurri, “Mojito” salsa verde and salsa criolla. Everything was grilled and flavored to perfection, no sauces needed in our opinion. Served with white rice and some plantains.

Because someone has a love affair with plantains, we ordered some more options: Tostones: twice-fried green plantains with Dijon-mojo which fried food lovers will... well, love and Maduros: fried ripened sweet plantains which I could eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

Because someone has a love affair with plantains, we ordered some more options. Tostones are twice-fried green plantains with Dijon-mojo which fried food lovers will… well, love and Maduros, fried ripened sweet plantains which I could eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

If all of the names and foreign Spanish words seem just too much for you and you forgot your phone or Lonely Planet mini phrase book, you can always order the 15 Tastes of Cuba for $42.95 per person, you get to eat small portions of Chef Guillermo Pernot’s culinary favorites, no decision making needed. Or go for the unlimited version, Cuba Libre’s weekend brunch (offered Saturdays and Sundays starting at 10:30 a.m.), an extensive menu of items available a la carte or as part of the all-you-can-eat Unlimited Tapas Brunch for $28, and includes the new Chocolate Waffle, a chocolate-yogurt waffle with fresh sliced bananas, citrus-maple syrup and whipped yogurt. Then you can eat/explore without feeling like an uncultured dummy.

Up next we were given a dessert menu with a full list of drinks, sweets and more options on the back. Having flashbacks of rum punch on the beach in the Bahamas, I went with Paradise Rum Punch with Don Q Gold Rum, Don Q Coco Rum, Licor 43, falernum, pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice, coconut milk, guarapo, Angostura bitters and was not disappointed. It was a sweet, milky drink that tasted like a dessert on its own.

Up next we were given a dessert menu with a full list of drinks, sweets and more options on the back. Having flashbacks of rum punch on the beach in the Bahamas, I went with Paradise Rum Punch with Don Q Gold Rum, Don Q Coco Rum, Licor 43, falernum, pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice, coconut milk, guarapo, Angostura bitters and was not disappointed. It was a sweet, milky drink that tasted like a dessert on its own.

Completa, which means tasting everything tapas style is our new favorite word and our kind of Cuban culture. Tres Leches 8 Vanilla sponge cake soaked in three milks. Mocha mousse, Cuban Flan 7.5 A traditional Cuban dessert of vanilla custard. Candied mango and papaya salad. Vanilla cookie Mami Totty’s Arroz con Leche 7.5 A classic Cuban rice pudding recipe handed down from Chef Pernot’s mother-in-law. Coconut macaroon

Completa, which means tasting everything tapas style is our new favorite word and our kind of Cuban culture and we went with the Tapas Desserts in three options. With each bite as delectable as the last, the Tres Leches (Vanilla sponge cake soaked in three milks with Mocha mousse) Cuban Flan (A traditional Cuban dessert of vanilla custard, Candied mango and papaya salad with vanilla (wafer like) cookie and my favorite Mami Totty’s Arroz con Leche (A classic Cuban rice pudding recipe handed down from Chef Pernot’s mother-in-law with coconut lemon filled macaroon).

Dulce de Leche was a nice cool down option on a hot summer day with house-made condensed milk caramel ice cream and waffle cones. The most enjoyable part was scooping up the ice cream with the cone.

Dulce de Leche was a nice cool down option on a hot summer day with house-made condensed milk caramel ice cream and waffle cones. The most enjoyable part was scooping up the ice cream with the cone.

The lunch menu, available weekdays from 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., features new items like the Gazpacho Chicken Salad, with citrus marinated, pulled roasted chicken, romaine, grape tomatoes, red onion, seedless cucumber, piquillo peppers and Cuban bread croutons, and served with Gazpacho vinaigrette; and the Miami Frita, a ground beef, pork and Spanish chorizo burger on a brioche roll with lettuce, tomatoes, “Frita” sauce, mustard and shoestring yuca. The lunch menu includes items a la carte or available in three-course “Rápido Lunch” combination plates.

Sous Chef Angel Rafael Roque Gomez stopped by as we were ready to be wheelbarrowed down the street to talk food, Cuban culture and we thanked him for treating us like familia.

Sous Chef Angel Rafael Roque Gomez stopped by as we were ready to be wheelbarrowed down the street to talk food and Cuban culture. Of course we thanked him for treating us like family. And he said that’s the way it should be. Agreed, Angel, agreed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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