Washington Post staff writer
Tired mojitos get new life at Cuba Libre
Friday, October 29, 2010; T9
Three things I'm generally not fond of: chain bars with themed decor, endless variations on mojitos and drinking in venues that could double as pavilions at Epcot.
The new Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar at Ninth and H streets has all of this, but the large and vibrant newcomer is anything but the tourist trap I expected.
Let's start with the 9,000-square-foot venue itself, which is supposed to make you think you're whiling away the evening at an outdoor plaza in pre-Castro Cuba. Surrounding the dining room are full-scale facades of houses, complete with large balconies and curtains that flutter in the breeze. Between the curtains and the overhead stage lighting, it looks more like a vintage movie set than a restaurant - you expect Carmen Miranda to come dancing out of the kitchen, singing the theme from "Week-End in Havana."
Cuba Libre, a Philadelphia import that also has locations in Atlantic City and Orlando, is like nothing else in Washington.
But it's easy to forget about kitsch when you're sitting at one of the large, comfortable bar stools or the first-come, first-seated tables for groups. Old-school salsa music plays as the bartenders whip up endless rum cocktails and deliver small plates of rum-glazed pork belly or grilled baby octopus. Everyone around us seems to be holding mojitos in chimney glasses packed full of mint and ice or curvy hurricane glasses garnished with fruit. (Early warning: The bar is loud.)
In your glass: My trepidation about ordering mojitos comes from the fact that they were new and trendy a decade ago, but ensuing years have seen the traditional Cuban cocktail go the way of the Cosmo, dumbed down with an endless parade of flavored rums and recipes that have little to do with the original. (That many bartenders hate the time-consuming process of muddling limes and tearing fresh mint into the glass has hastened its demise.) But I've found little to dislike on Cuba Libre's extensive cocktail menu. I think this comes down to the ingredients: Cuba Libre's house rums - spiced, white, five years old - are made by the Demerara distillery in Guyana, which also produces the full-bodied El Dorado rums. The restaurant has its own sugar cane press to extract sweet juice, known as guarapo, instead of using some tasteless commercial sugar-water mixture. And the mint coating the inside of your glass is Cuban-style hierbabuena, which has a sweeter, more mild taste than the spearmint that so many other bars use.
The traditional mojito here is better than most bars, but it's just one of 14 choices. Much better are the versions made with the dark, almost orangey Pyrat XO rum, the guava mojito, which adds guava nectar for a tropical punch, or the grilled pineapple, which adds smoked pineapple puree to the house white rum. (The curious can try the strangely compelling beet-and-basil mojito, which tastes rich, tangy and nothing at all like a mojito.)
Mojitos make up only about a third of the menu, which covers all the bases with rum runners, mai tais and hurricanes. Skip the frozen drinks and head for the caipirinhas. The house-infused mango and papaya cachaca, served over muddled limes, goes down almost too easily - a problem when it's served in a glass that seems no bigger than a Dixie cup. A caipirinha made with fresh ginger, mint and honey tastes like summer.
If you're not looking for rum drinks, the bar makes a tasty white sangria with pears and sugar cane syrup and frothy pisco sours. There's a good list of Spanish and Mexican beers (Alhambra, Estrella).
The only caveat: It's not all exactly made-to-order every time. On some nights, the Cuba Libre Especial (five-year-old rum, cola, lime) is muddled fresh, and other times I've watched bartenders pour pre-mixed drinks that were sitting in pitchers behind the bar. As for those mojitos: When it's busy, cocktail shakers are pre-loaded with mint and guarapo, waiting only for the rum and a splash of soda that are added when you order.
On your plate: If you're sharing at the bar, consider the Chicharrones de la Casa, a plate of chorizo, steak, crispy chicken, pork and yuca and plantains. Much of the menu is small plates - a nod, the owners say, to Washington's tapas habit.
Price points: Mojitos are $9 to $11, with most right at $10. Beers are about $6 each. Appetizers cost $5-$6, with larger plates for two at $11-$13. There is no cover charge.
Nice to know: Once the restaurant has settled in, it will begin offering late-night salsa dancing on weekends. (The "balcony" over the bar holds a secret DJ booth.) Look for the fun to begin in about two months.
What people are saying: "I'd recommend this for drinks after work," says Kei Miller, a 29-year-old marketing manager from Rockville who was enjoying a pomegranate mojito at the bar with friends. "The mojitos are really refreshing. And it's a very eclectic group of people here."
"The ambiance is very nice," adds Traci Betancourt, a 37-year-old event planner. "It's different; it's very cute. The bar size is great, and the tables are good for groups - that's essential for this area. People like happy hour."
Kalima Shakoor of Rockville has been here three times and already recommended Cuba Libre to her friends. "It's a good place to come if you're on a first date," the 29-year-old says. "The setting, the low lights, there are good people in here - it's really awesome."