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Caribbean flavors at budget prices? Sí

It's hard to get through the queue at Cuba Libre without getting excited about the meal to come.
The kitchen range, covered with sizzling skillets, is right on the other side of a glass panel, and while you're waiting to place your order and pay your bill, the smell of garlic and pork and poultry and rice and beans hangs in the air with the promise of good things to come.

Leonardo Lopez, who opened this outpost of Cuban cuisine in April, is new to owning restaurants -- but not so you'd notice.

Lopez worked for a while as a bartender at Mojito Tapas Restaurant, Louisville's much-prized Spanish-themed restaurant. He counts Fernando Martinez, co-founder of Mojito and its Cuban sibling, Havana Rumba, as his best friend.

But with Cuba Libre, Lopez has gone his own way, and that's all to the good.

The narrow dining room has a Spartan, strip-mall feel that's unashamedly rustic. The decorating scheme consists mostly of scribbled graffiti that bears witness to happy diners who've left behind testaments like "best meal ever," "loved the food" and "can't wait to come back."

That graffiti may not be as detailed as a published restaurant review, but the substance is right on.

Lopez and chef Rafael Hernandez, both natives of Cuba, have put together an inexpensive menu of Cuban standards that mark this little spot as one of Jeffersonville's most attractive eateries -- especially for those who love Caribbean flavors and like to dine on a budget.

Pressed Cuban bread -- sizzling hot, crunchy and gleaming with a light sheen of oil from the press -- serves as the platform for hearty sandwiches like the classic Cubana (roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard; $7.25) or pan con lechon (moist slices of roasted pork sluiced with loads of caramelized onions and a delectable mojo sauce made from lime juice, onion, garlic and olive oil; $6.50).

A grilled grouper sandwich comes on that same bread, dressed with plenty of onions and paper-thin slices of tomato -- but the sauce is a thick, spicy aioli made from chili and tomatoes ($9.25).2 of 2)

And if you prefer, the grouper can be had as an entree, bathed in garlic and cilantro ($9.25).

Sandwiches and entrees come with one or two sides: a colorful scoop of sautéed onions, peppers, zucchini and yellow squash, perhaps; green plantains smashed and fried into the tender golden discs called tostones.
Black beans simmered with peppers and onions become a deeply satisfying stew that's served as a side dish, but could easily be coupled with steamed rice to make an entree.
Red beans are doctored with ham and chorizo, and the list includes sweet potato fries, the mix of seasoned black beans and white rice called congris, and more (à la carte, side dishes are $2.50).

The regular menu includes items like my favorite guilty Cuban indulgence: picadillo. It's a rich mix of ground beef, olives, raisins, peppers and Creole tomato sauce that looks and tastes like the grown-up version of a sloppy Joe (well, not too grown-up, come to think of it; $8.25).

Pork, chicken and beef are marinated, grilled, stewed and fried in a handful of appetizing preparations (I have to note that Hernandez and his kitchen crew aren't the least bit inhibited about using fats and oils to build flavor).

Appetizers include handmade tamales, steamed in corn husks, with a thick coating of moist masa wrapped around a seam of seasoned pork ($5.99), and empanadas filled with chicken, beef or vegetables ($4.50).

But it's wise to check the list of specials: One day the kitchen served a cooling ceviche of shrimp and grouper bedded down on a warm bed of tostones. Another day -- alas, a day when I couldn't make it in -- a sign promised paella.

Lately, the TV hanging from the wall has often been tuned to World Cup games -- unless there's none to be seen, in which case the soundtrack has pulsed with the happy beat of Cuban music.

And service is just as happy: The place is small enough that Lopez, Hernandez and their compatriots whisk the food instantly from kitchen to table, and though the counter service sometimes suggests a casual attitude toward customer satisfaction,
seldom does anyone on staff walk past a table without asking whether everything's good.

And as far as I can tell, the answer to that question is always a hearty "yes."

By Marty Rosen • Special to The Courier-Journal • June 26, 201


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