Friday, January 25, 2013

Philly Restaurant Week: Cuba Libre

I'm a little hesitant to share this with all of you. The fact that Jeff and I, by ourselves, consumed all of this food - practically licking our plates clean - makes me feel like a bit of a glutton. But it was sooooo good!

It's Restaurant Week in Philly again. After sifting through a list of mediocre-looking menus, I discovered the mouth-watering offerings of Cuba Libre in Old City. Everything on the menu looked delicious. Jeff and I were chomping at the bit to get down there and try it.

We ventured down to Philly through the bitter cold Wednesday night. We found on-street parking nearby ($3.50 to park for an hour and a half? Things like this are why Philly kicks New York's butt, in my humble opinion) and hustled over the cobblestones to the restaurant. It was so bitterly cold out, my teeth were chattering after our three block walk. But upon entering Cuba Libre, we were transported into the tropics. The decor is awesome - made to look like a plaza in the streets of Havana (ok, probably a Disney-fied version, but it worked for me). We quickly forgot the cold and settled into debating our menu selections.

The restaurant week menu was incredibly generous - two small plate appetizers, an entree and a dessert. Each. And that did not make it any easier to decide what to get. Even with four appetizers between us, there were three or four more we wish we could have tried. Because of the quantity of dishes, I was sort of expecting tiny composed portions, but the plates were extremely generous. With the appetizers alone, we would have left there happy campers. I'm glad we stuck around for the rest, though!

For our first appetizer course, we chose El Chinito Cubano, Papas Rellenas, and delicious tostones (which I sneakily ordered off the menu in addition to our other selections. Score!). El Chinito Cubano was a set of spring rolls with a Cuban sandwich filling served with hot Chinese mustard. While I was extremely excited about this idea, I'd have to say it was my least favorite dish of the meal. Putting anything into a spring roll is a good idea, but the Cuban is not my favorite sandwich. Still, it was interesting, and the mustard was killer. Better were the Papas Rellenas, described on the menu as "Cuban potato croquettes filled with beef picadillo. Sweet and spicy guajillo pepper sauce. Crispy onions and Manchego crema." It reminded me of the Sicilian arancini - a deep-fried ball made of starch with tasty filling. Because of the deep red color of the sauce, I expected something spicy, but it wasn't - it was deep and rich and savory. The tiny sweet peppers in with the beef were excellent. When we go back, I'm totally ordering those again. Finally, the tostones were awesome. They came with a garlic dipping sauce that could kill a vampire at two hundred paces - a little strong on its own, but a nice complement to the plantains.

Then they brought us more food. Jeff's Mejillones Mar y Terra ("Prince Edward Island mussels, poached in rich lobster broth, roasted garlic, Berkshire pork belly, caramelized onions, steamed kale and slow roasted tomatoes") looked like an entree-sized portion. Yeah, you could point out (as I did) that the shells took up a lot of space, but even after they were removed it was a big dish. The contrasting textures of the mussels and pork belly was lovely and roasted garlic is always awesome. I was very happy with my empanada as well - I chose the chicken, corn, sweet pepper and Jack cheese option. It was beautifully crispy, served in a cute little fryer basket. It came with some baby spinach with an extremely (almost inedibly) salty goat cheese dressing and the best tomatillo relish I've ever tasted. It was sweet and rich and just a tiny bit spicy - a perfect complement to the crispy, creamy empanada. And also pretty great licked off of your fingers (since, you know, actually licking your plate in a restaurant is frowned upon).

Then they brought us more food. I was torn between a number of menu selections, yet again, but at the last minute fixed on the Lechón Asado. Best decision I've ever made. This was pork slow-roasted over a charcoal flame served over mashed yucca in a black bean broth, with a little slaw on top. The pork was amazing. Seriously amazing. It was juicy and smokey and charcoaly. Any pretensions I had to taking half of my entree home for the next day's lunch went out the window as soon as I tasted it.

Jeff got the Ajiaco de Pescado a mi Manera - salmon, chicken breast and scallops in a shrimp broth with bacon, yucca, calabaza squash, fennel, and cashew. All of these elements were brought together by the broth with provided the dish with a cohesive flavor. I only stole a small taste of chicken (since I'm not a fan of seafood), but I though that the broth had a lovely light sweetness to it. Jeff enjoyed the dish, but it wasn't as much of a standout as his appetizers (especially the mussels).

Finally, dessert. I had the tres leches - a vanilla sponge cake drenched in dulce de leche-flavored milk with a dab of caramel and a mocha mousse on top. The drenched cake just dissolves in your mouth into sweet creamy goodness. I'm not normally a fan of coffee, but the mocha mousse was perfect, with just a touch of coffee flavor. Jeff ordered the Pudín Diplomatico - banana bread pudding with chocolate chips, spiced rum and roasted pineapple. While I loved my cool and creamy tres leches, Jeff's pudín was more appropriate for the frigid evening with its warm and toasty banana and cinnamon over a sticky caramel sauce.  The dessert portions were sized well - not so small to leave you wanting more, but not enough to make you feel stuffed.

We were happy campers when we left Cuba Libre. My overall impression is very positive - we will definitely be back again for their delicious and unique (maybe not in Cuba, but definitely around here) offerings. A neighbor had commented that she found their food salty; that may have been true (I found myself very thirsty on the ride home), but I didn't notice it at the time (except with the salad dressing). Everything else exceeded our expectations. Restaurant week goes on through February 1st, so if you're looking for delicious food and a great value, I'd recommend a trip to Cuba Libre. I'm trying to find an excuse to go back next week!


  1. Did they still serve the cuban bread and mango butter during your visit? I was curious about going and heard great things about that.

  2. I can't say for sure - we didn't get any. However, when we were having our dessert, I pointed out to my husband that every other table had a wire basket of what seemed to be bread. I had my suspicions that we missed out on something . . . not that we would have had room for it anyway!

    1. Thank you for the reply. I'll definitely try to have a night out at this restaurant! Your review was great as were the pictures!!