April 1, 2010

Chestnut Hill Dining Guide

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Restaurant now paying culinary dividends
¡Cuba! Bad review a ‘wakeup call’ for romantic Hiller

The ropa vieja, a staple dish in Cuba, is shredded beef boiled in beef stock and served with sauteed onions, peppers and garlic in a tasty tomato sauce atop a yuca puree with orange zest and cilantro. (Photo by Michael T. Regan)

Finding excellent food at ¡Cuba! at bargain prices is like finding a needle in a needle store. Ever since the economy tanked in September of 2008, many restaurants have lowered prices in an attempt to keep the wheels rolling and the fires burning, but I doubt if any restaurant has come up with a better bargain offer than ¡Cuba! at 8609 Germantown Ave.

For example, why cook at home when ¡Cuba! offers a $15.95 prix fixe menu every day from 5 to 6:30 p.m., which includes a choice of soup or salad; entree choice of chicken, pulled beef or salmon; and homemade dessert flan! After 6:30 p.m., the three-course prix fixe dinner is available for $19.95. In addition, the restaurant has introduced new “value” portions — smaller sized portions for lower prices — something that more restaurants should consider.

According to ¡Cuba! owner, Miguel Angel Castañeda, “Weathering the storm of this recession has had me busy with daily operational requirements at the cost of important activities such as thanking those who have helped us along. So these prices are my way of thanking those customers who have stuck with us through the economy, the weather and everything else.”

One of the roadblocks for ¡Cuba! was a one-bell review in October, 2008, by the Inquirer’s restaurant critic, Craig LaBan, who basically accused the restaurant of almost everything but selling salmonella tablets. Some restaurants have not survived such withering artillery fire, but at ¡Cuba! they were not afraid to, as poet John Keats put it, “unweave the rainbow.” Miguel’s son, Michael, who took over as executive chef one year ago, said, “That review was a wakeup call for us. We knew we had to make some dramatic changes. The truth is that we would not be where we are today if it was not for that (negative) writeup.”

Since Michael took over the reins in the kitchen one year ago with beaverish efficiency, ¡Cuba! has been honored in three Top 10 lists in restaurant blogs and Web sites, including “Best Outdoor Dining,” “Most Romantic” and “Neighborhood Gem” ( Zagat has included them in their 2010 guide as a “Key Newcomer.”

The new Zagat Guide says: “Homey tastes of Cuba and elegant atmospherics are the draws at this art-filled spot in Chestnut Hill, where a cheery staff helps diners navigate the moderately priced menu. Take a tip from insiders, and relax with a mojito on the patio in back.”

Based on the dishes we have tried at ¡Cuba! there has not been a joker in the deck. We particularly enjoyed the Sopa de Carne (steak soup) with homemade beef stock, steak tips, sublime manchego cheese and more ($8); Salmon Rico, fork-tender pan-seared salmon over green lentil puree, cilantro and garlic broth ($18, or a half-portion for $10); and Pez Espada, grilled swordfish with mango and rosemary broth, fresh blackberries and broccoli ($18). There is a small, reasonably priced list of wines by the glass or bottle, as well as bottled beers and cocktails.

How did Chestnut Hill wind up with a Cuban restaurant? Here’s the nickel history: The senior Castañeda, 47, is an engineer who worked for Trans-World Airlines and then ran an online travel business, but his only experience with restaurants was as a customer. But then he happened to attend a seminar on “following your dreams.” It might have been serendipity, but Miguel, who was born in New York to parents who had escaped from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, did have an American Dream on which time was beginning to run out.

“Although I had never been in the restaurant business,” he explained, “I did dream about opening a Cuban restaurant and sharing our culture and food with the American people. There is a mystique about Cuba, partly because it has been closed to the American people for so long. Part of the dream was also for my son, Michael, so he could run his own restaurant.” (Michael, 26, who started out managing ¡Cuba!, previously worked at P.F. Chang’s and The Chop House in South Jersey, and he helped open a restaurant in Tampa, Florida.)

“I did speak to friends in the restaurant business who suggested that I check out Chestnut Hill,” said Miguel. “When I came here, I really fell in love with Chestnut Hill. I was struck by how much it looked like Old Havana ... We eventually were shown this vacant property at 8609 Germantown Ave. (previously the home to a yoga studio for a short time and before that to Life is Good, a gift shop), and we were able to work out a deal with the owner (Sanjiv Jain).”

¡Cuba! Is by no means the only Cuban restaurant in the city, but the others we have been to — Cuba Libre and Alma de Cuba — are both downtown, very pricey, and with food not necessarily any better or more authentic than at ¡Cuba!

Also, the Hill Cuban restaurant’s outdoor deck was built in just a few days by a construction team of Russian workers. It opened to the public on July 1, 2008. The deck has tiki lights and is quite charming, considering that it looks out onto a parking lot.

In addition to the restaurant, ¡Cuba! is featuring Cuban-related artwork  such as photos taken in Cuba by local photographer Michael Regan. As one of my favorite writers, Damon Runyan, would have said, “The dining room is dressed up a little more than somewhat.”

The server/hostess who waited on us during our most recent visit, Ruth Arnold, was an absolute delight. The Germantown resident is a graduate of Germantown Friends School and the University of New Mexico, where she majored in Latin American Studies, so she fits in at ¡Cuba! like a dip of ice cream on a cone.

The romantic Cuban restaurant seats only about 30 in the main dining room. A small room in the rear seats another eight, and the outdoor patio, which should be opening soon, seats about 40 more.

¡Cuba! also has one of the best Happy Hours in the area. From 5 to 6:30 daily, they offer the Sangria Cubana, hand-made with fresh fruits, wine and rum, for $5. Their hand-made (by bartender Craig Juer), hand-muddled, fruit-flavored Mojitos, which are as good as any we have ever tasted, are $6.50 during Happy Hour, and international and specialty beers are $3. Every Thursday you may bring your own wine, with no corkage fee.

¡Cuba! has periodic live performances of Cuban musicians such as Cuban piano master Tony Sala and Grammy-nominated Mark Kramer. (A full entertainment schedule can be seen on the restaurant’s Web site.) There is also a “Havana After Hours Latin Jazz Series;” the occasional series takes place on a weekend evening, 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. A $50 prix fixe menu that night would include a four-course chef’s dinner with one bottle of either red, white or sparkling wine along with the live show. (Reservations are required.)

Figuratively speaking, ¡Cuba! is not just the sauce; it’s the whole enchilada. It will also be launching a brunch every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting April 9. Free parking is always available in the lot right behind the restaurant; the entrance is on Evergreen Avenue. For more information, call 215-242-4422 or visit


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