Kuba Kuba, the boisterous Cuban restaurant on Park Avenue in The Fan, has a considerable reputation. The Food Network named Kuba Kuba’s California huevos rancheros as the best breakfast in Virginia on their “50 States 50 Breakfasts” page. Richmond Magazine critic Bird Cox describes Kuba Kuba as “what a neighborhood favorite should be… a go-to spot for lunch with friends.” The Cuban restaurant is also nominated for “Best Everyday Casual” in the 2017 Elbys, the sixth annual Richmond dining awards.
Since I moved to Richmond less than a year ago, I’ve had many conversations with people who tell me about the city’s significant food scene. Kuba Kuba was one of the places they mentioned. On Jan. 20, I drove to the Fan with Katie Fleming (‘18), parallel parked my car on a cramped road, and had my first taste of Cuban food.
“Is that the restaurant?” I asked Fleming as we stood under the neon sign marking Kuba Kuba’s entrance. It looked like a corner-store in New York, one of those spots where loud pop music and souvenirs pour out. We walked inside and took in our surroundings; at that moment I knew I had ventured out of my comfort zone. The used-to-be-vibrant paintings were faded, the tile flooring had black dirt in the cracks, and the staff weaved in and out of the several tables crammed into a large kitchen-sized room. I felt out of place.
Their previous restaurant reviews and awards line the walls next to the door. The sources vary, from magazines like Richmond and Style Weekly to newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. Once we got situated at our table, I started to relax. Perhaps it was the music, or the lived-in feel to all of the furniture, but despite our table being in the middle of the room, I felt at ease.
Our waitress had to come back to our table twice before I decided what I wanted from the multi-page menu. Fleming and I shared an avocado salad before our entrees. I ordered a Cuban sandwich, and Fleming had the penne pasta without the manchego cheese.
When the salad came, I pushed a little of everything— tomatoes, mixed-greens, avocado, all soaked in the house balsamic vinaigrette—onto a side plate and grabbed a piece of Cuban toast. We agreed that eating in intervals, switching from salad to toast every few bites, was the best technique.
In an effort to save room for our meals, we intentionally didn’t finish the generous portion of avocado salad, and I was pleased with that decision when I saw our main courses. My first ever Cuban sandwich did not disappoint. Composed of Smithfield ham, roast pork, pickles, mustard, and Swiss cheese, the Cuban bread sandwich was served warm off of the panini press. The pickles and mustard lining the bread complimented the meats, but the pickles were difficult to bite through. I often found myself mid-bite having to awkwardly pull the full piece of pickle out from the sandwich. But, other than the pickle controversy, my Cuban sandwich delighted my taste buds. I also enjoyed the fried plantains, which filled the empty spots on my plate. Plantains, a part of the banana family, have less sugar and more starch than a banana, and they’re usually eaten fried or grilled.
Fleming picked the portobello mushrooms out of her mountain of penne pasta. Since she asked for it without cheese, the pasta bowl consisted only of roasted peppers and tomatoes, with basil on top of the penne. I took some mushrooms when I tried her food, and they really added to the flavor. I enjoyed my Cuban sandwich more than Fleming’s pasta, but my opinion might have been different had the pasta had cheese. Fleming enjoyed the leftovers she heated up the next day, but said the dish was better at the restaurant.
Despite having to park in the Fan, Kuba Kuba was worth the 35-minute drive from my home in Midlothian. This culinary experience has inspired me to explore the other acclaimed restaurants Richmond offers.
All photos by Eva Whaley.