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Havana Rumba
4115 Oechsli Ave.
897-1959

Unfortunately, as I type this I’m unable to take a bite, so instead I’ll fill my mouth with its name: “LE-chon asAdo!” Draw out the “long-A” sound of the first syllable and let the “chon” resonate, like a bell bonging, then trip through the last three syllables in quick, sibilant syncopation. Lechon asado!

It’s the classic Cuban roast pork, traditionally served on Christmas Eve and made with a whole suckling pig that is marinated in sour orange-based mojo and cooked in a pit over green mangrove wood. Havana Rumba’s way of cooking it may be less evocative — they start with pork butt — and the way it’s served isn’t feast-style. But it stacks up with barbecue from either of the Carolinas as a way of transforming pork into something grand and still down-home. It’s a thin cutlet, finished on the grill after a long roasting, allowing the smoky, crisp outer layer to give way to a shreddingly moist interior.

Havana Rumba’s ($7 lunch, $11 dinner) is the only version I’ve ever tasted, so for all I know this is par for the course. But in that case, the course must be Valhalla.

The lechon asado was definitely the highlight of my two recent visits to Havana Rumba, which opened last September on Oechsli Avenue in St. Matthews, but I didn’t taste anything I wouldn’t happily try again. Our first trip started out with a Cuban sampler ($9) — a pleasing assortment of appetizers that included a decent empanada; a tamale stuffed with seasoned chicken and tasting so strongly of corn it was thrilling; and a papa rellena. The latter is a ball of mashed potatoes, filled with chicken, breaded and deep-fried. Havana Rumba’s is up to the (very high) standard of the ones a Cuban fri/files/storyimages/of mine makes.

I followed that with a steak chimichurri ($15), a grilled skirt steak that had three separate exposures to the Argentinian herb sauce (also popular in the Caribbean): It was marinated in a green “chimi,” then served with both red (smoky, spicy) and green (insinuatingly piquant) versions. It came with excellent plantain slices, rice and a bowl of black beans that, while being the humblest thing on the table, may have been the loveliest — each tender bean was its own discernable, glistening delight, infused with the lively yet earthy flavor black beans have at their best. My wife’s camerones al ajillo ($13) — shrimp sauteed in olive oil, garlic and lime juice — was not as spectacular as the sampler or the steak, but it told a telling tale about Havana Rumba: Unlike many ethnic places, they don’t scrimp on the shrimp.

I’ve already told you about the entree I had when I dropped by for lunch — lechon, lechon, lechon — but I’d be remiss not to mention the side dishes that come with it: congris, a Cuban mingling of rice and black beans (good, but barely a patch on the black beans I had before), and yucca root sauced with mojo. I’ve never really appreciated either of these ingredients — the sauce of citrus, oil and garlic always seems too oily, the dense starch of the root (a.k.a. manioc or cassava) too weird — but the combination brought out the best in both of them.

Havana Rumba is located in the same small strip center that includes Del Frisco’s. The single room, painted a buttery yellow that seems to be one of the current “hot” colors, is snug, decorated with an eye toward Cuba and Kentucky’s common interests: tobacco box lids laminated into the tabletops, ceiling fan blades shaped like tobacco leaves.

But while tobacco may be fading here, our culture and Cuba’s retain a common taste for great food (and, perhaps, a disregard for the health problems posed by large amounts of saturated fat). Havana Rumba is a perfect Cuban restaurant for Kentucky

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