The Washington Post

A taste of the island, just steps from the Metro

Mi Cuba Cafe in Columbia Heights has a section of brick that’s covered in graffiti as an homage to a restaurant in Havana. The new restaurant’s two owners arrived from Havana seven years ago. (Amanda Voisard/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Serious thought went into making Mi Cuba Cafe a fun place to refuel.

While the trim storefront in Columbia Heights fits in just over 30 seats, lots of cheer packs its two dining rooms. The walls are painted in tropical shades — papaya, banana, avocado — and they display such conversation-starters as a wooden “apron” dangling with old silverware and a faux pay phone seemingly carved from a tree trunk. Table tops sport laminated maps of Cuba and forecast a menu of black beans and rice and lechon asado.

Serious effort goes into the food as well. The mom and pop behind the restaurant are Jacqueline Castro-Lopez and Ariel Valladares; the couple came to Washington from Havana seven years ago, Valladares with recipes from his grandfather and mother, which he taught to his two (non-Cuban) cooks.

They ace all the food I’ve tried. Nubby croquettes break open to reveal creamy centers of pureed chicken and bechamel, the richness offset by a dunk in nearby garlic sauce. Pork shoulder is slow-roasted with onions and garlic, then shredded and heaped on a plate with your choice of two sides; my vote goes to frizzy fried cassava and rice tinted by black beans, although I wouldn’t push the crisp fried green plantains and red beans away if they showed up on my table again. Ropa vieja — juicy braised beef infused with the flavors of tomatoes, bell peppers and cumin — is the classic you want it to be.

In a nod to some of his neighbors, Valladares says he uses olive or vegetable oil instead of animal fat, which is not missed by this diner.

The cooking could use a beer, but beverages are all on the soft side. Fresh-squeezed orange juice or a mango shake make refreshing accompaniments.

Food memories aren’t the only recollections from back home. A patch of the cafe’s wall is white brick and covered with graffiti. Castro-Lopez says it’s a shoutout to one of Havana’s most famous restaurants, La Bodeguita del Medio, where every inch of floor and table and even ceiling is signed by someone who has eaten there.

1424 Park Rd. NW. 202-813-3489. Entrees, $6.95 to $13.95.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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