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On the Town

Havana Nights at Yuca

By by Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page WE05

IT'S AMAZING how bars take on different personalities during the week. Your favorite Adams Morgan pickup spot is just another neighborhood hangout on Tuesday nights. That bar where you watch college football on Saturday afternoons brings in a completely different crowd for salsa dancing on Mondays.

I've visited the sunny Cuban restaurant Yuca (1800 M St. NW; 202-785-1177) a few times since it replaced the dreary Ooh La La earlier this year, lured by excellent mojitos -- always filled with clumps of mint -- and the delicious Cuban sandwiches: ham, pork, cheese and pickles piled between slices of crisp bread and served with plantain chips.


On weekend nights, Yuca is filled with the sounds of salsa music, and the floor is packed with dancers, such as Bruce Rosenberg and Carmen Robinson. But during the week, the M Street bar can be quiet. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Over my visits, though, the atmosphere has ranged from sparse to dead. I expected a larger turnout for free salsa lessons a few months ago, but the crowd was so-so. During a recent Wednesday happy hour, a friend and I were among four non-employees at the huge tiled bar that dominates the room, grousing about the lack of prices on the drink menu. (It was only after we got the check that we noticed that the tasty mango-flavored margarita was about $2 more than the regular version.) Salsa music played in the background, and lights flashed pointlessly around the empty hardwood dance floor, as if hoping somebody -- anybody -- would take the hint and liven up the place.

But come back on a Saturday night and it's like a different club. There's electricity in the air and dancing everywhere you look. As a DJ spins lively salsa tunes, couples spin and twirl on the crowded dance floor, but also find space on two sides of the bar, playfully groove in the restaurant area and even take over the foyer, making pinpoint turns perilously close to steps leading down to a couch-filled lounge.

Between songs, a steady stream of couples circulates between the dance floor, the bar and a raised seating area decorated with a mural of a pristine harbor. Others relax on a banquette in a small sea-green alcove, where a potted palm tree shades some seats. And pairs move toward the rear of the crowd to work out the kinks in their steps. Yuca offers free salsa lessons at 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, but most of the dancers here clearly know what they're doing. It's fun to watch them glide to the pulsing rhythms while you sip a mojito or delicious Presidente beer from the Dominican Republic. (There's a longer cocktail list with drinks such as the Cuban Connection, though the "connection" between Havana and a drink made with Hennessy, Grand Marnier, red Alize, pineapple juice and grenadine escapes me.) While the bartenders are busy, service varies wildly. Sometimes they're courteous and prompt, but the next round finds the bartender looking right through you and moving on.

If it's not occupied, take a peek at the glass-walled VIP area in the rear -- a re-creation of a 1950s Havana apartment, down to the refrigerator and electric fan, it even sports Lucy-and-Ricky-style twin beds. This is a restaurant that offers some clear choices: Stop by during the week, when Yuca is a good place to hang out and catch up with friends over Cuban drinks, or come by for dinner and a festive dance party on the weekends.

A POMEGRANATE PUNCH

Pomegranate cocktails aren't exactly new -- inventive mixologists have been experimenting with them for a while -- but the sweet-tart fruit is starting to make more inroads at local bars and lounges. I'm not sure whether the reason is research touting the pomegranate's health benefits as an antioxidant, increasingly large California harvests or all those inescapable Pom Wonderful ads on the Metro.

Pomegranate juice is the basis of the house cocktail at Karma (1919 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-331-5800), a funky restaurant and coffeehouse that morphs into a popular watering hole at happy hour. The Karmatini is an intriguing mix of vodka and a splash of orangey triple sec, topped with plenty of pomegranate juice. It's refreshing and perfect for lounging on a couch with co-workers or taking in the rotating art exhibitions that hang on the walls at this former Dean & Deluca shop. (Don't believe the address, by the way -- the entrance is near 19th and I streets.)

Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-9250) is deservedly renowned for its cooking, but the Cleveland Park restaurant also has one of the nicest seasonal cocktail lists in town. On the current version, a glass of Prosecco, a sparkling Italian wine, receives a light kiss of freshly squeezed and strained pomegranate juice. It's a bracing aperitif; the fruit's sharpness is a nice balance for the sweet wine. Palena gets bonus points for adding a few fat seeds in the glass, to be eaten when the drink is finished. Former Palena bartender Derek Brown has taken his love of pomegranates to Firefly (1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-861-1310), where the menu features a cocktail called the PoMo, a Grey Goose cosmopolitan with pomegranate juice replacing the traditional cranberry. It's a subtle change, but an interesting twist on a staple.

The stellar cocktails at Cafe Atlantico (405 Eighth St. NW; 202-393-0812) are some of the tastiest in town, using a variety of fresh fruits and juices to create summery libations all year round.

Here, pomegranates punch up the restaurant's already-potent margarita. The frothy drink is a healthy red color -- complete with matching pink salt on the rim -- and the pomegranate juice adds a wonderful tang to the traditional tequila kick.

In contrast, there's the "house" margarita at Rosa Mexicano (575 Seventh St. NW; 202-783-5522), a frozen pink slush dispensed from a spout behind the bar. I'm not a fan of frozen margaritas, so I took a friend along. (She finds frozen drinks "amusing" and "girly," which is exactly why I won't be caught dead ordering one.) Surprisingly, it's one of the punchiest pomegranate drinks I've tried, with a full, rounded flavor that only hints at alcohol. Still, it looks pretty silly, and you'd do better to order one of the more traditional margaritas on the restaurant's list, or head a few blocks over to Atlantico -- unless you like your margaritas to amuse.

GET HOME SAFELY

Starting Friday night, area partygoers can take advantage of one of my favorite holiday traditions: the Washington Regional Alcohol Program's SoberRide service, which offers free or cheap taxi rides for revelers who've had a couple of drinks and don't belong behind the wheel.

Through New Year's Eve, anyone who needs a designated driver between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. can call 800-200-8294 and get a lift home, courtesy of 16 participating cab companies. (Cingular users can dial #8294 on their mobile phone.) If the fare is less than $50, SoberRide pays the bill. If it's more than $50, you pay the difference. More than 26,000 people have taken advantage of SoberRide since the nonprofit program began offering free taxis in 1993. The service also operates on St. Patrick's Day, Independence Day and Halloween.

That's not to say that SoberRide is perfect. Getting home isn't as quick or reliable as hailing a passing cab -- you call a dispatch center, and they'll send a taxi to pick you up on a first-come, first-served basis. (You can't call ahead and make an appointment to be picked up at a later time.) On busy weekend nights, that can mean a long wait, so it's usually best to call at least 20 to 30 minutes before you think you'll need the service. In the past, some friends and I haven gotten so fed up with waiting in the cold for SoberRide that we canceled the taxi and found other ways home. But if you're not pressed for time, it's one of the most valuable services offered during these party-packed weeks.

The fine print: SoberRide is offered for calls originating in the District; Alexandria; and Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, Montgomery, Prince George's and eastern Loudoun counties. You must be 21 or older to use SoberRide. Visit www.soberride.com for more information.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company