Cuba Libre is one restaurant in Philadelphia to which everyone must take a trip. It may be located in the heart of Old City, a section known for its nightlife, but this is one place that serves the rustic, simple homey foods that represent many of the islands of the Caribbean. My recent trip to Cuba Libre two weeks ago was bittersweet. It was the first time in a while that I was able to enjoy dinner with a bunch of good friends, even with our busy schedules of classes and co-op.
I had heard that Cuba Libre was celebrating its 10th year anniversary with new menu items, an updated look to the restaurant and a rejuvenated chef who was committed to bring his passion of Cuban cuisine and culture to the city of Philadelphia. This was the perfect place to celebrate graduation with my friends and enjoy the last days of Cuba Libre’s old menu, while also looking forward to new and exciting things that the future has in store for us all.
Starting at the end of May, Cuba Libre revamped some of the more classic dishes of the island, rebooted their entire menu, showcased more lighting in the dining area, replicated the aura of some of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hangouts and displayed photographs of Chef Guillermo Pernot’s recent travels back to Cuba.
“My recent series of trips to Cuba reawakened my passion for sharing this culture with our guests, and as a result, we have created a variety of new ways to bring Cuban soul to the heart of Philadelphia,” Pernot said.
To start off, Cuba Libre’s piqueos, or small plates, like Cuban tapas, are a great way to dive into the cuisine. Instead of typical tortilla chips, guests are presented with Mariquitas Cubanas (plantain, malanga and yucca chips sided with a choice of three spreads). These were served as a variety of thinly sliced and fried root vegetable chips with an assortment of savory and sweet spreads. I personally recommend the black bean hummus and Haitian eggplant spread. Mama Amelia’s Empanadas is another good way to start the meal; while all are very tasty, my favorite is the one filled with chicken, corn, sweet peppers and Jack cheese. All empanadas are also served with a goat cheese-ranch dressing, and topped with a spinach salad and tomatillo relish.
As for bigger plates, the Ropa Vieja (shredded beef brisket stewed with tomatoes, red peppers, onions and red wine, served with maduros and white rice) is the perfect combination of savory, sweet and slightly acidic. For anyone that loves seafood, the Paella de Mariscos is a perfect blend of “bomba” short grain rice cooked with Maine lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels and squid. If you are someone that prefers a simpler dish, the El Cubano never fails to live up to expectations. The classic sandwich served here consists of sour orange marinated pork loin, Genoa salami, ham, provolone, Swiss cheese and a yellow mustard-pickle relish.
Moving on to desserts, the selection presented on the menu again displayed the beauty of all the island has to offer. The Tres Leches de Banana, a vanilla sponge cake soaked in three banana-flavored milks, caramelized bananas and a chocolate-banana mousse, was delectable. Not too sweet, this was a nice way to end the meal. A more decadent choice is the Torta de Chocolate, a chocolate soufflé tart layered with dulce de leche ice cream, chocolate-orange sauce and blueberry compote.
Also, don’t forget to get a drink. Many of their mojitos are a mix of Cuba Libre white rum, fresh pressed sugar cane, lime juice, a splash of soda, hierba Buena and fruit purees that leave guests wanting to try more than one.
Most of the dishes featured above have been edited or revamped as of May 23 when Cuba Libre rolled out their new menu. The first course section of the menu now includes 25 new piqueos, more ceviche, and salad and soup options, while new entrées include Dorado a la Plancha, seared Mahi Mahi with forbidden black rice; Vaca Frita, tender braised and crisped shredded flank steak; and Arroz con Pollo.
As Cuba Libre makes the transition into a new era, maybe it’s time we happily end another chapter of our lives. As the school year comes to a close, we look forward to making new and exciting changes, too.