In a nutshell: Creative “Nuevo Cubano” dishes and an immersive tropical ambiance in this Old City standby will have you shaking to Gloria Estefan’s beat in no time.
$26 for unlimited Cuban tapas? That’s not even a question– count me in.
I had previously visited Cuba Libre for an intimate private group dining experience, where we dug into a buffet-style brunch. A couple Penn Appétit friends visited last summer for Tapas Tuesday and shared rave reviews, so I knew this incredible deal would be next on my list. I was thrilled to find out they offered the AYCE option on their brunch menu and pounced on it with a friend the next weekend we were available.
Walking inside, it’s like you never entered a building. The open-air setting features quite the exotic environment with vintage décor, paddle fans spinning lazily in the air, and upbeat Latin music wafting through the space.
Our goal was to make it through all 17 brunch tapas included in the $26 fare. We fell short by two vegetable plates, but trust me: we were substantially stuffed by the end of our two-hour session.
The menu is divided into three sections: Vegetal (Vegetables), Carne (Meats), and Del Mar (Seafood) (links jump to each respective section). Our general eating order was Carne–>Del Mar–>Vegetal, but the dishes are presented below in the order they appear on the menu.
These bouncy ball-sized puffs, lined up in a row on the plate, were stuffed with manchego cheese and spinach. The fritters melted in our mouths, the spinach’s smoothness in terms of texture and taste melding well with the creaminess and slight piquantness of the manchego. A fragrant goat cheese-ranch sauce and organic olive oil added richness and a perfect base for sopping up.
Guacamole is just guacamole, right? Mash some avocados up, add a bit of salt and pepper, maybe some diced tomatoes and onions, a squeeze of lime, done. Not so here: diced golden pineapple was the differentiator in Cuba Libre’s version, adding a fleshy sweetness and slight tartness. Extra virgin olive oil made the dip smooth and creamy on the tongue, while fresh lime juice perked up our palates. Crispy plantain chips, which looked like curvy strips of golden bacon, protruded from the bowl, already marinating in the guac bath.
The knockout of the vegetable bunch, these fried ripened sweet plantains were tender morsels. Their faint sweetness and starchiness helped balance the intense flavors of other dishes during our meal. I would have happily eaten a bowl of these on their own!
Points for presentation: sticks of crispy yuca root perched upright in a miniature fry basket. The yuca was incredibly starchy and had no distinctive taste, however; the silky cilantro-caper aioli attempted to temper this somewhat.
This chilled salad featured a trio of seasonal mushrooms marinated in a citrus escabéche sauce. The palate-cleansing dish was light and refreshing.
About the same size as the buñuelos, the fritters were comprised of crispy taro, garlic, and West Indian culantro (an herb also known as Mexican coriander, not to be confused with cilantro). A dip in the artistic smear of tamarind ketchup, sweeter with more savory undertones than your average tomato-based ketchup, brightened each bite.
For these Cuban croquettes, creamy mashed potato embraced a filling of spicy beef picadillo. Crispy onions and manchego crema bonneted the stuffed potato balls, which basked in a pool of sweet and spicy guajillo pepper sauce.
Spring rolls are no longer reserved for Asian cuisine. Cuba Libre packed their wrappers with classic Cuban sandwich ingredients: sour orange marinated pork loin, Genoa salami, ham, provolone, and swiss. A swipe of pungent Chinese mustard sauce had a strong, raw bite, raising the hairs on the back of our necks.
The variety of textures and flavors on the chicharrones platter made this my favorite dish of the evening. Five different bites were present on the plate: a nugget of crisp marinated chicken; a chunk of tender skewered skirt steak, a thick and crispy cut of Berkshire pork belly, slices of piquant Cortez chorizo, and a tostone (fried plantain slices). All were lacquered with a mojo picante (spicy sauce), so make sure you can handle a kick in the mouth.
Another diverse platter, the charcuterie board featured a seasonal selection of artisanal cured meats; we dove into chorizo, cured ham, and salami. A creamy slice of manchego cheese, a solid wedge of sweet guava paste, surprisingly tongue-tingling honey-spiced almonds, and crispy lavash flatbread accompanied.
Similar to the pork belly served with the Chicharrones dish, this particular cut of Berkshire pork belly was honey-soy glazed and slow-cooked for twelve hours. Porky, sweet, shreddy, and slightly crispy, these slices were gobbled up in moments. The meat was accompanied by vigorón slaw, a chopped cabbage salad dressed with tomatoes, onions, vinegar- and salt-marinated chili pepper, boiled yuca, and true chicharrones (crispy bits of fried pork skin).
I was amazed by how much flavor was packed into this hand-chopped skirt steak burger. Tucked into a toasted brioche roll, the quarter pounder–definitely larger than your average bar slider–dripped juices onto our hands as we sank our teeth into it. Topped with a pert tomatillo relish, smoked cheddar cheese, lettuce, and tomato, this was no ordinary cheeseburger.
Cuba Libre’s take on wings are apparently award-winning. Which award, I’m not entirely sure, but I didn’t quite care as I voraciously ripped into the chicken. The crust was shatteringly crisp, lacquered with a tangy Asian BBQ-inspired chili glaze. It preserved moist poultry meat inside; if you wanted to spice that up, a sweet chile dipping sauce came on the side. Pickled okra salad mitigated some of the heat with its sharp, briny crunch. Wet naps are encouraged for cleaning up (the restaurant’s got you covered on that front).
Prince Edward Island mussels swam in a rich lobster-based broth accented with roasted garlic, chunks of Berkshire pork belly, caramelized onions, vibrant-green steamed kale, and slow-roasted tomatoes. The pearlescent bivalve meat had a tender chew and fully absorbed the flavors from its surroundings. Drinking the broth straight made me a happy camper.
Octopus walks that fine line between too soft and overwhelmingly chewy. The truffle and citrus-marinated version here fortunately was right in the middle with an excellent tenderness, slightly charred from the grill. A pungent, salty salpicón (hodge-podge) salad of organic grape tomato, seedless cucumber, Cotija cheese, and Kalamata olives finished the plate.
The dishes we technically missed out on were the Cuban House Salad (watercress, romaine, baby spinach, avocado, chayote, radish, yuca croutons, and citrus vinaigrette) and the Tostones (twice-fried crisp green plantains with dijon-mojo dipping sauce). However, I believe I crunched on the former at my group dining brunch (below), while a piece of the latter was included with the Chicharrones dish.
The fruity, vibrant, and refreshing agua frescas are ideal concoctions to kick off your meal.
Cuba Libre delievers with one of my favorite bread baskets in the city. The spiraling basket houses a thick slice of fragrant banana bread; a folded guava cream cheese hojaldre (puff pastry); a crispy, stick-straight churro generously dusted in cinnamon; a fruity coconut-berry muffin; and a dense and rich chocolate muffin. As if that wasn’t enough to satisfy, you can dip/slather your baked goods with the accompanying mango butter, guava marmalade, and dulce de leche.
This salad seemed more Asian-inspired than anything else, with its romaine base dressed with a vinegary dressing and wonton strips.
The impressive fruit offering (a bowl of cool yogurt nearby for dipping) was flanked by warming pans of hot fare.
Those options included French Toast a la Cubana (vanilla custard-soaked brioche bread, maple syrup and panela soaked sweet plantains, whipped cream), Cuban Style Poached Eggs (in an enchilado tomato sauce and goat cheese fondue), and Cuban black beans over white rice.
As if the ambiance didn’t convince you enough, your receipt is served in a hinged Cuban cigar box (no cigars included).
Dining on refined versions of Cuban classics in such a convivial environment is my kind of place and an excellent spot for brunch, lunch, or dinner. If you need to satisfy Cuba Libre cravings, the restaurant also has locations in Atlantic City, Orlando, and Washington DC.
10 S 2nd Street