Short Orders: Cuba Libre
2822 N. Henderson Ave.
If you recall the restaurant's party days, it seems like we'd never get around to calling Cuba Libre and old stalwart.
Yet there it is, the grand old kitchen of booming Henderson Avenue. Tristan Simon still owns the place, though he now spends much of his time in California. Chef Nick Badovinus is long gone, as are the other guys who helped establish the place and make it a mainstay--a reliable, though hardly intriguing mainstay.
Which is to say the restaurant has matured, from the rebellious youth shaking free from local culinary expectations to block's old man, no longer willing to break any rules.
For instance, their chicken tenders claim a global twist--"tempura" is mentioned on the menu--yet they appear as mundane, hardly Asian bites--nice to look at, tender enough, and lacking any character worth writing about. Slow cooked pork is a fairly straightforward take on Caribbean flavors: fork-tender meat, black beans, hints of tropical fruit and pungent spice. It is competent and filling. A good meal.
And that's the difference between then and now. The menu today hardly stirs excitement. There are good taco creations and a few basic entrees, but the innovation is missing. So be it. Cuba Libre still shows some spark. The servers are upbeat, though at times harried. The patio remains popular. The margaritas...well, we can stop there.
If the image of a restrained, fatherly restaurant, lolling in the calm backwaters after years of fickle 500 hedonism strikes you as dull, then I've failed to get the point across. Cuba Libre has changed, of course. And in doing so, it has become steady and familiar, though no longer all that interesting.
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