Enter the Twilight Zone with me. Imagine a world in which communism, and the economic and cultural blockades and sanctions (not to mention an oppressive government) had not impacted Cuba.
A world in which Cuba advanced along with every other Caribbean country. Sure, we wouldn’t have all those fabulous vintage cars, but it would be a small price to pay for a country’s ability to thrive and grow.
At Cuba Libre on Las Olas, such a fantasy world exists. The restaurant reimagines what Cuban cuisine would be like today if its people had had the freedom to experience and incorporate surrounding cultures. There is authenticity in the background, but hints of what could have been as well.
We stopped in on a recent Friday night and, thanks to perfect weather, we were able to eat on the expansive sidewalk patio. I’m glad for that because I don’t know how comfortable I would have been otherwise. Not one server or employee was wearing a mask. Neither were most of the customers, even when they got up and walked through the restaurant. Folks, I know we are doing better against this pandemic, but I don’t think we’re at that point yet.
A cocktail helped to dispel my uneasiness and the grilled pineapple mojito, with Cuba Libre White Rum, Licor 43, and grilled pineapple purée sure did the trick. They even made a virgin version of their Sandito (with fresh watermelon juice) for my teetotalling husband. In all, there are about a dozen variations on the mojito available. All are made with fresh-pressed sugar cane, fresh-squeezed lime juice, mint, and a splash of soda. All varieties can also be made as non-alcoholic fauxjitos! If you’re there on a Monday, a pitcher is only $25, which makes it as good a reason as any to stop by at the beginning of the week.
We started with an order of the crab guacamole, which combines the traditional dip with blue crabmeat (and plenty of it), grilled golden pineapple, roasted jalapeños, fresh lime juice, and extra virgin olive oil. The bowl is surrounded by long thin strips of plantain chips, giving it the look of a multi-legged bug, and making it a little difficult to serve, but boy is it delicious! It is enough for four to share, but you won’t want to.
For our next course, my hubby loved the black bean soup; slow-simmered for deep flavor and garnished with red onions and sour cream. It was one of the many dishes indicated as vegetarian on the menu, something my pescatarian husband appreciates. I was slightly less thrilled with my aguachile de pulpo. I’d had the grilled octopus on a previous visit and was impressed with how tender it was. This dish didn’t score as well in that regard, the thin slices were chewy, and the aji Amarillo citrus sauce was not only overly garlicky (I know it’s a garlic sauce, but subtlety counts), but the citrus component had an acrid quality.
For an entrée, my husband was thrilled that there was a vegetarian paella offered. Baby spinach, “soyrizo,” wild mushrooms, asparagus and garbanzo beans, were nestled in a bed of perfectly cooked saffron long grain rice. I was having the hardest time deciding what to order, so many of the meat and seafood dishes sounded delightful. I finally decided not to decide at all and ordered the mixed grill. It is only available for two, but I ordered it anyway and brought home tons of leftovers.
The menu boasted Maine lobster tail, but these reminded me of “Florida lobsters” or langoustines. They were delicious and perfectly prepared, just not what I was led to expect. Also well prepared were a half-dozen or so plump jumbo shrimp. I had a bit of the free-range grilled half chicken, and it was moist and tender. It was just as good the next night for dinner. Cortez chorizo sausage and Black Angus skirt steak (cooked perfectly to order) rounded out the platter. However, the menu boasted asparagus and grilled artichoke hearts salad as part of the platter, neither of which was present. The platter did come with a pair of sauces; parsley chimichurri and classic Criolla, both added just the right amount of kick to the grilled steak.
The mixed grill platter comes with a choice of sides. I opted for the simply prepared, but refreshing, fresh avocado with olive oil and sea salt and a bowl of roasted garlic boniato-potato mash. Other side options are white rice and black beans, traditional black beans and rice pilaf, steamed yucca, and onion, chicharrón mojo yuca fries, tostones Hawaianos, or fried sweet ripe plantains.
We shouldn’t have had dessert, as neither of us finished our entrée, but the trials we go through for you, our reader. Hubby opted for the empanada de guayaba, three mini, flaky pastries stuffed with cream cheese and guava and served with a scoop of caramel topped vanilla ice cream. Banana bread caramel was just as decadent as it sounds, topped with vanilla ice cream.
For a taste of what life could have been like in Cuba, stop by Cuba Libre.
800 E Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
You can also sample Cuban fare at these area restaurants.
1135 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
925 N. Andrews, Fort Lauderdale
3308 Griffin Rd., Dania Beach