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Cuba Libre opens in Penn Quarter

Had been to the one in Philly and was excited about the DC opening. I am Cuban-American so my standards for Cuban food are pretty high and unfortunately the DC Cuba Libre did not meet them.

The atmosphere is very Disney like with it's movie-set decor. The servers are very eager to please though they are working through kinks as they get opened. Our server however knew NOTHING about the wine list. She confessed she was not a wine drinker and could only say that the one she had tasted was "smooth" and would recommend. They do not have a sommelier so you are on your own if you want wine. However, the mojitos are amazing (if pricey) so perhaps that is why they don't have knowledgeable wine servers!

Appetizers
1. Tuna ceviche- more like a plate of diced tuna sushi, not bad but again, not cuban nor cheap! You are better off going to Ceiba for ceviche or a sushi place
2. Yuca frieds served with ailoli - rather bland, you couldn't really decipher b/w fried potato or yucca, the flavor of the yucca didn't really come through
3. Spinach fritters - again, not cuban food but their attempt at appeasing vegetarians in DC I suspect

Main dishes
1. Pork/Lechon- a cuban classic, I try this at every new cuban restaurant I go to. This one was nouveau, served with cole slaw on top and a bit dry. Why don't you just give us some juicy pork with a side of white rice, black beans and plantains??? (each of those sides is $5 extra by the way)
2. Shrimp with cane and stuffed fried jalapeno - average and not cuban (mexicans eat jalapenos!), seemed like something you would find on the menu at Chili's
3. Black paella - not too bad though mahi mahi was a bit overcooked and only one shrimp in the seafood mix

If you want authentic, good Cuban food in DC, I suggest you find a good Cuban friend who can cook you a homemade meal! Otherwise I think Cuba Libre only adds to the Disney atmosphere that Penn Quarter has become and will likely be a draw for out-of-town conventioneers with an expense budget to go along!

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  1. I was pretty much looking forward to the opening for the bar - any thoughts on the bar area? Is it large?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Raids

      Depends what you consider large :) I can't recall an exact number of seats, but it's reasonably large. Certainly not small.

    2. Hm, well, I had a very different experience than the OP, though it doesn't sound like we got any of the same things. I'm not Cuban, so I don't know how the dishes are similar or different to traditional cuban fare, I just know what I find tasty or not. Full disclosure, I have a friend who works there, but I feel comfortable in saying that that didn't influence my tastebuds.

      We were informed early on that the restaurant isn't about serving traditional cuban food, but rather Cuban food as if it had progressed like other cuisines (though progressed from what wasn't made clear). So I think that definitely jives with what the OP was saying about "nouveau", but I'm not sure if the OP meant it in a bad way or not.

      I didn't particularly feel like I was in a movie set (re the decor), but ymmv.

      We had great service, and everyone was very attentive to us and knowledgeable about the menu. We did not ask about the wine list. I don't think there's a formal position of sommelier there, but I know that if you want help with wine, there are knowledgeable people on the staff, though it doesn't sound like the OP got one of them! The cocktails are very tasty, as the OP said. I loved the Sandito Mojito -- with fresh-squeezed watermelon juice. Yum.

      For apps we had:
      Tuna ceviche with red onion escabeche - I love raw fish so found this tasty.
      Chicharrones - fried bits of meat - Pork and beef were really really good, chicken was good, the fried yucca less so.
      Mushroom escabeche - tastiness, I'd never had mushrooms prepared this way (it's a light pickling technique)
      Sopa de levanta los muertos - seafood soup with mussels, crab, I think scallops and I'm not sure what else. The seafood was packed in there, and the broth was delicious. It's a hot soup. And there was a tiny bit of truffle oil on top to make it a little richer. Really nice soup, I'd get this on its own for a light lunch on a chilly day.

      Main courses:
      Churrasco - grilled marinated skirt steak. I forget what it was marinated in, but it was definitely citrus based, and very tasty. Also cooked exactly as I ordered it, medium rare.
      Arroz con pollo - our server informed us that it would be different than we were expecting. The arroz was actually much wetter than a typical arroz con pollo, more like a paella, and the chicken was shredded and mixed in with the rice. It was tasty, but I'm not a huge fan of chicken to begin with, so I wasn't in love.

      Desserts:
      Tres leches cake with banana - super tasty, the (I think) caramelized banana was a great touch.
      Chocolate molten cake with dulce de leche ice cream (forget the name exactly) - also very very good, loved it with the ice cream and the layer of dulce de leche in the middle. Super good.

      Drinks:
      Lime, ginger, honey margarita (I think?) - definitely a good one, though even better was my:
      Sandito mojito - as I said above, mojito made with fresh-squeezed watermelon juice (I believe they do it in-house). Yum.
      Flight of three rums, aged 5, 15, 21 years (I believe those numbers are correct) - I found this relatively tasty though I typically don't like alcochol straight up. The 15 year was the tastiest. I know there's also a rum menu with I believe 71 rums on it.

      Service:
      Uniformly extremely helpful, very knowledgeable about the menu (both food and drink). We didn't experience any kinks that were being worked out, but clearly in any new restaurant there will be some, as the OP apparently experienced.

      Re pricing, I think it's about on par with other good, relatively nice restaurants in the area. It's not a white-tablecloth place, nor does it want to be. It's not super cheap, and it's not shockingly expensive.

      So, I found the food really good, the drinks really good, and the service really good. It seems like this is probably not the place to go if you're looking for traditional Cuban food, but that's not the point of the restaurant anyway. OP's experience just goes to show how different experiences can be at the same restaurant, but I'd definitely recommend that you give Cuba Libre a try!

      1. We had a similar average food experience at Cuba Libre. The mojitos were tasty (classic and pyrat), but we wouldn't return for a meal.

        We ordered the plato gaucho (mixed grill) medium rare. One cut of meat came out completely rare and another cut (the skirt, which cooks v. quickly) came out well done. The chicken and shrimp were completely overcooked.

        The tuna ceviche was exactly as described by OP, a plate of diced tuna. There was nothing ceviche-like or flavorful-like about this dish at all. I like sashimi and sushi, but if I want that, then I'll go to a Japanese sushi restaurant.

        The cuban bread and mango butter was pretty good and the batata con camarones had a nice flavor. But, in the context of a meal, this wasn't enough to turn the tide.

        Too bad. We would have loved a tasty meal option in this area. The meal came out to over $100 for two before tip, which would have been fine had we enjoyed the food.

        1. I thought I read somewhere they were having 50% off for the first week of the opening and 25% off for the second week. Anybody know if that's true?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Another Drew

            Yes, that's true.

            50% discount on food from October 1 until October 7, 25% discount on food from October 8-13th.

          2. Has anyone tried the cuban sandwich? DC is in dire need of a decent one, or even a marginally edible one.

            1 Reply
            1. Was at Cuba Libre again tonight. Again had a delicious meal, and again good service. Some of the same items as before, but some different.

              Everyone loved the sopa levanta muertos, and the three people who got the cubano sandwich were all very happy with it, and one specifically commented how the flavors melded together very well and the pork was done just right.

              I continue to be happy with the restaurant, and hope others have similarly delicious experiences!

              1. Okay, so I went here for the third time for New Year's Eve after having a great lunch and some great cocktails at the bar. I understand that most restaurants are not performing at their peak at these type of events, and the food I had there at lunch was pretty great.

                However, it's not a place I'll be returning to for dinner for New Year's, restaurant week, or any other sort of occasion that places some strain on a restaurant. For one, I put in a specific request for a table *not* along the banquette with my initial reservation. They seemingly lost it. No problem. We restated the request. We happily waited at the bar, and the manager came out and we explained our previous request. He kind of questioned whether we actually spoke to anyone and was not really as polite as I would have liked, but ultimately found us a suitable table. No big deal, but not really smoothly handled either. But whatever, it's New Year's, he's really busy and it worked out.

                But then...the food. The apps were okay (and the meatballs were actually kind of great) but everything had too much vinegar. This was not the case when I had lunch there before. And then the entrees...yikes. Terrible, low-quality, overcooked steak with no flavor. Really, really awful pulled pork that almost immediately made me ill (it was kind of like someone tried to test how far one could balance sweet with vinegar in order to cover up a prevailing taste of *bad*).

                I will disclose that I did have three cocktails and half a glass of champagne (alas, could not drink more Veuve than that after said entree) and my illness, although severe, was not long-lasting, but in my and my husband's reasoned opinion, it was the entree and not the alcohol. And I'll also add that the atmosphere was really a great time, and that the dessert was really very nice. But it's hard to forgive a truly horrible entree.

                I might go back there for night like New Year's, but I would not order dinner, and I might go back there for dinner, but not for any special occasion.