Cock­tails, por fa­vor

Feel free to eat, drink and be merry

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - RESTAURANT - Kim Knight

Ev­ery­thing I know about Cuban food I learned from a movie where a food critic sug­gests a chef has gained weight be­cause he is eat­ing all the ter­ri­ble food his cus­tomers have sent back to the kitchen. Which is to say, nada. But if you (like me) watched the feel-good food truck film Chef and won­dered what the deal was with a real-life sand­wich cubano, head to Cuba Libre. Spoiler: we didn’t send a sin­gle bite back.

Cuba Libre bills it­self as the home of rum and fun and — bold claim — Auck­land’s best fried chicken.

We fell on that sticky, smoky, pollo ($16) like ex­tras from The Walk­ing Dead. The thigh flesh is suc­cu­lent and juicy; the skin has been left on and it smacks of cit­rus and black­ened spice. Def­i­nitely the best chicken I’ve eaten this year.

Our ta­ble had a rolling start. Two of us kicked off an af­ter work drink with a round of Moros y Chris­tianos — the dish in which Moors and Chris­tians are rep­re­sented as black beans and rice. In Cuba, this comes by the bowl. At Cuba Libre, it’s com­bined with cream cheese and shaped into lit­tle pankocrumbed balls that are deep-fried and plopped into a se­ri­ously tasty red pep­per and al­mond sauce.

At $5 apiece they were pricey, but ex­cel­lent with a beer or (ob­vi­ously) a Cuba Libre. The lat­ter is what hap­pens when you add a wedge of lime to a rum and coke. It came in a cute can from Karma Cola, the com­pany that buys raw prod­uct di­rect from com­mu­ni­ties in Sierra Leone. Cock­tails with a con­science.

The menu has been tweaked since our visit (those rice and bean balls are now $4) and “Bad Habits of Rab­bits” ($17) is, I’m told, no longer avail­able. Such a pity. The first swal­low was car­roty and light; the af­ter-taste was car­roty and cake. This hum­ble vege has been sub­jected to many in­sta­grammed in­dig­ni­ties (I’m look­ing at you, home­made veg­e­tar­ian car­rot hot dog) but this was a su­per-pleas­ant sub­ver­sion.

Cuba Libre re­minded me of those cool places that cool peo­ple who travel like to skite about. They stum­bled on it down a side street, yada, yada. But then you go to Google and dis­cover that’s a Karen Walker on the cor­ner and the nearby re­tail real es­tate comes with an $1800 a week price tag. You betcha they’ve got turmeric lat­tes and, of course, that pork will be free-range. The pork was also un­for­give­ably dry. This was a dud dish ($24) and I feared for the “mojo” cubano sand­wich ($16), which had not yet ar­rived. We were a ta­ble of four by now, eat­ing, drink­ing and be­ing very merry (it’s that kind of place) and all of this was be­ing fa­cil­i­tated by one man who took our or­ders, mixed our drinks, ran our food, cleared our plates and did the same again for ev­ery other ta­ble in the room. He was a hos­pi­tal­ity rock star. I for­gave him the for­got­ten sand­wich and, when it fi­nally ar­rived, wished I’d or­dered two. Crunchy on the out­side, sod­den with molten cheese and mus­tardy sharp­nes, it came with thick slices of pork and thin slices of ham and it was (con­tro­ver­sial!) bet­ter than any burger I’ve had re­cently. Cuba: the Cook­book traces the mul­ti­ple ori­gin sto­ries of this bready won­der. One in­volves the in­ter­na­tional work­force of a cigar fac­tory in Florida — salami from the Ital­ians, pick­les from the Ger­mans, etc. In Cuba, the authors note, the proper prepa­ra­tion (listed by the Min­istry of Do­mes­tic Com­merce in the 1970s) in­cludes mor­tadella. It is a sand­wich that is more than the sum of its parts. More hits: the divine smoked yo­ghurt and spicy red sauce that came with a plate of baked root veges ($16). More misses: the snap­per ce­viche ($16). Fresh pineap­ple sounded good in the­ory but it was too sweet in a dish that needed more lime and chilli. Cuba Libre started life as a pop-up and some as­pects need re­fin­ing but it’s a place that is try­ing very, very hard to give you a good time. Grab a cock­tail and go with it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.