Venue Review: Cuban Revolution Restaurant & Bar
Reports that the Cuban Revolution has spread have been confirmed. The movement's encroachment onto American shores had long been thought to be confined to Providence, R.I., where the original Cuban Revolution restaurant opened in 2001 and continues to maintain a foothold backed by a second location that opened in the same city a few years later.
But recent evidence that a third restaurant has infiltrated the American Tobacco complex in Durham is incontrovertible: a sign over the entrance with a suspiciously socialist-looking star-in-circle logo, grainy black and white newsreel footage of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara playing nonstop on overhead TV screens in the dining room, graffiti-tagged paintings of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and a young Fidel Castro on brick warehouse walls eerily suggestive of a Havana cigar factory.
Patrons old enough to remember JFK's presidency might find the menu, which is crammed edge to edge with provocative political factoids and quotes from revolutionary leaders, difficult to read. Persistence and a pair of reading glasses reveal an offering that owners Ed and Mary Morabito describe as "revolution fusion," which translates to a mix of traditional Latin American (mostly Cuban) fare and contemporary creations such as arroz con pollo wrap and vegan maduros and hummus sushi roll.
An impressive number of menu descriptions are accompanied by superlatives such as "award-winning" (sweet potato fries), "voted best sandwich in Rhode Island" (steak sandwich) and "World's Best" (the entire lineup of pressed sandwiches).
To determine which of these claims are fact and which are merely propaganda, this reporter went under cover on two separate occasions. The results of my investigation suggest that there's a little of each.
The Cuban sandwich is in fact a variation on the classic version that's popular in Mary Morabito's hometown of Tampa: roast pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and mayo on grill-pressed Cuban bread. The sandwich earns bonus points for authenticity (including the bread, which is the real deal), but the fact that the one I sampled was cold in the middle left it well short of the menu's "World's Best Cuban Sandwich" claim.
The adobo-sprinkled sweet potato fries, on the other hand, are indeed a winning choice, and a fine companion for a mojito that would surely have put a satisfied smile on Ernest Hemingway's face. It's tempting, in fact, to order exclusively from the tapas menu, whose proletarian prices ($4-$6, mostly) leave plenty of room in the budget for exploring the bar's selection of tropical cocktails and draft beers. Gambas al ajillo, which serves up a garlicky trio of colossal shrimp, is a must. So are blistery-crusted empanadas, in particular the version filled nearly to bursting with juicy, well-seasoned chicken. While you're at it, might as well spring for the roasted piquillo peppers, served on Cuban toast, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with crumbled feta. And it would be a shame to miss patatas bravas, airy wedges of potato with a delicately crisp golden crust.
Then again, the entree offering is not without its rewards. Roast pork, shredded and seasoned with a garlic-and-sour-orange mojo sauce, is a respectable take on lechon asado. Better still is ropa vieja, succulent shreds of beef simmered in a stew of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and adobo. But the dark horse winner of my "best entree" award isn't a Cuban dish at all, but a stellar rendition of an Argentinian/Brazilian classic, steak chimichurri.
Flan, made from an old family recipe handed down to Mary Morabito, is deservedly the most popular dessert. Key lime pie tasted as if it had spent too much time in the refrigerator when I sampled it, but tres leches cake was excellent.
Service can vary widely. Depending on which comrade of the wait staff is assigned to your table, you may feel as if you've landed in a worker's paradise or have been banished to Siberia.
Historians and political pundits will no doubt continue to debate the merits of the Cuban revolution for decades to come. Foodies, on the other hand, are likely to find the Cuban Revolution - with a capital R - to be a worthy venture.