This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
I traveled to Cuba in 1998 and, at the tables of several families there, tasted food I still savor: pork marinated in fresh orange juice, cumin and garlic; a simple breakfast of crispy Cuban bread and newly laid eggs purloined from hens cooped outside kitchen windows. Those memories made me wonder whether Marcos Lorenzo and Fernando Martinez would succeed when they opened their Cuban restaurant, Havana Rumba, in St. Matthews in 2004. I knew they were natives but questioned whether they could use American ingredients to replicate the tastes of their homeland.
Turned out their food was better than anything I consumed during my Havana trip, and the original Oechsli Avenue restaurant’s sunny yellow walls and cigar-labels-as-art decor instantly made it a sentimental favorite. The one- and two-hour waits on weekends, plus their remarkable addition of Mojito Tapas Restaurant a few years later in Holiday Manor, were harbingers that a second Havana Rumba could succeed if it came to be.
In 2010 Lorenzo pulled the trigger (Martinez left nearly two years ago), opening a Middletown Havana Rumba that is as busy as its still-bustling predecessor. Though considerably larger than the first location, most of that square footage is in the kitchen. Yet the dining room’s soaring ceiling, longer bar and array of high-backed booths combine to make it appear more spacious than the first.
Not that eating inside is a drawback, but this year’s unusually soggy April and May unfortunately kept me from dining on the outside patio, a space typically hopping on warm, dry evenings. (Lorenzo said he’ll eventually cover the patio.) On several nights last year when I hoped to eat there, Latin music poured from the outdoor speakers, but, per usual, there was a long wait and I went elsewhere.
Cuban food’s rustic nature may make it seem like one of the least-challenging world cuisines to prepare, but a cook who doesn’t understand its technical and seasoning nuances can find himself turning out slow-roasted meats that are dry and stringy, rendering tropical flavors muted instead of bright, and plating starches and vegetables that are mushy and bland. It takes skill to cook so simply and deliberately. “Everything we do here is authentic,” Lorenzo says, “but we do make some changes to keep it on the healthy side. In Cuba, you use a lot of lard, but here we try to change that to olive oil or take the skin off a chicken or fry less. But if my mother were making black beans and rice, she’d use a lot of lard.”
Some things are best unchanged, such as the entremes ($9.50), an appetizer platter of Serrano ham, spicy Spanish chorizo, roasted red peppers, assorted fruity-briny olives and Murcia and Manchego cheeses. Those sharp flavors upstaged the calmer ceviche del dia ($8), made from shrimp in a citrusy marinade and garnished with lovely, looping fried plantain slices.
My guest’s pescado a la parrilla ($14) was a perfectly grilled fillet of swai (a white-fleshed river catfish) rubbed generously with garlic, cilantro and parsley. The side of twice-fried, fork-tender sweet plantains proved a nice foil to the dish’s garlic notes and are, thankfully, sides for most entrées. My masas de puerco ($14) featured slow-roasted, pan-fried hunks of tender and juicy marinated pork, a portion so large it provided leftovers for a shared dinner the next night.
On a return visit, some friends and I shared the pollo asado ($13.50), which was nicely cooked but lacked its marinade’s anticipated sour-orange flavor. We devoured the Havana Rumba ($9.50), a hot-pressed sandwich combining roasted pork, chorizo, Serrano ham, provolone, pickles and a tangy aioli. And we left no scrap of the grilled skirt steak chimichurri ($14.50), marinated in garlic and citrus and served with red and green chimichurri sauces.
We all agreed that Havana Rumba’s “ultimate” lime margarita ($9), which gets a splash of orange juice, is among the best in town and, at 18 ounces, large enough to sip throughout an entire meal. The Cuban bread pudding ($5) was warm and delicate, fragrant of cinnamon, and Tia’s satiny flan ($5), which stood more than two inches thick, chilled the tongue. The tres leches (literally “three milks,” $5.50) convinced me never to serve my homemade version to anybody who has tried Havana Rumba’s.
Months after opening, Lorenzo learned several customers of his first restaurant were betting the one in Middletown “would go broke in a year because everyone else in that location had closed.” Now, Lorenzo says, those critics are happily enduring the hour-long waits for tables.