By Lee Cole–
Amid the ordinary, rather uninteresting shops and chain restaurants around Mall St. Matthews, there is a local eatery by the name of Havana Rumba. Though it is tucked away quietly in a strip of shops on Oechsli Avenue, upon entering, visitors are transported to a totally different world – a world live and pulsing with the bright rhythms, vibrant colors and the unmistakable flavor of Cuban cuisine and culture.
Upon entry, patrons in the foyer are met with trumpet blasts and conga drums over the speakers, and the loud, lively Latin music sets the tone for the entire dining experience. The walls are painted with stark, vibrant reds and yellows and lined with paintings with sweeping pastels and black and white photographs of Havana.
The cuisine itself is no less vibrant, and Cuban food, while having some similarities to Caribbean or Spanish cuisine, has its own set of unique flavors and dishes. Rice with red or black beans forms the foundation for the rest of the cuisine. While beef and chicken are available, the focus around which most of the meat dishes revolve is some type or preparation of pork.
Perhaps the most famous Cuban dish is the Cuban sandwich, listed as “Cubano” on the menu, a Panini-like dish consisting of roasted pork, Serrano ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread. The “Havana Rumba” sandwich combines the elements of the “Cubano,” but supplements the Swiss cheese with provolone and adds Spanish chorizo and aioli. While it may be difficult for vegetarians to understand, it must be stated that for a meat eater and lover of all foods associated with the pig, the pile of glistening, roasted pork, Spanish sausage and ham is truly a thing of beauty.
“Pollo a la Milanesa” combines a fried chicken breast with Serrano ham, provolone, and sofrito sauce with saffron rice and — a favorite throughout the Caribbean — sweet plantains. Reflecting the strong seafood element in traditional Cuban cuisine, Havana Rumba serves up “Pescado a la Parrilla,” a fillet of grilled Swai with rice and black beans, aioli and plantains. For vegetarians, there are several non-carnivorous options, including “Cubano Vegetariano,” consisting of a spinach and cheese empanada, rice and black beans, yuca with mojo criollo sauce and plantains.
Another feature which adds to the vibrant, tropical atmosphere is the wide selection of daiquiris, coladas, margaritas and mojitos as well as an impressive array of mostly Chilean and Argentinean wines. The mojito is a classic cocktail staple of Cuban cuisine, consisting of rum, club soda, fresh lime juice, a sprig of spearmint and sugar cane. Another intriguing concoction on the drinks menu was the “Hemingway Daiquiri,” made with rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and sugar cane, served frozen or on the rocks. While the idea of Ernest Hemingway sipping leisurely at a fruity daiquiri in between hunting Nazi submarines in the Caribbean and writing the best prose of the first half of the century may be hard to imagine, the playful reference does not affect the flavor, which is delicious.
Havana Rumba’s overall atmosphere is lively and energetic. The constant din of conversation and occasional clipped orders heard from the kitchen over the bongos, electric piano and the steady rattle of maracas on the speakers can be almost dizzying at times. It’s certainly no place to go for a quiet, secluded evening. The music, colors and flavors are all intense and alluring. If you’re looking for an environment that is as exciting and zesty as the food, check out Havana Rumba.
Photos: Nathan Douglass/The Louisville Cardinal