After doing some enthusiastic consumption of bourbon at the Garage Bar, it was time to do some serious eating. I had already pushed our reservation back once by phone from the patio. It was such a nice night out and all of us were having fun experimenting with different cocktails and talking up a storm.
My buddy Karen was in town from DC, with her husband Travis. I’ve known Karen since 1993. We used to do some experimental drinking in Washington as young, less jaded, political operatives, who happened to be in the nation’s capital as it was coming of age.
Karen is originally from Florida, and as I recalled, has a thing for Latin cuisine. I had wanted to give Havana Rumba a try for some time. The name alone evokes a sense of joy, and its reputation is outstanding.
We all jumped into my Honda Element for the ride over to St. Matthews. I relinquished my driving privileges, considering I had been imbibing absinthe, and took over the duty of dj-ing with pleasure.
Havana Rumba is in a funny little spot. It was dark outside and I didn’t really know where I was going, so I was relying on GPS to deliver us expertly. We were going through densely populated neighborhoods, and with only a few tenths of a mile to go we all thought we were about to end up at somebody’s residence.
But trust and ye shall be rewarded. Out of nowhere there appeared a tiny strip of shops tucked in right on the edge of some houses. By coincidence this Korean joint, Charim, which also is on my list of “must try” restaurants, was in the same shopping complex.
It was no problem getting into Havana Rumba. It was after 9PM, and clearly the dinner rush had past. Often this restaurant has a 45-minute wait, which is easy to see considering it’s not that big. There really isn’t anywhere to wait once the small bar reaches capacity, so plan accordingly. I will say a reservation is a good idea. Even if it’s a spur of the minute decision, Havana Rumba will give priority to those phoning ahead over walk-ins.
First things first, drinks. There were several rum-based plantation drinks available, maybe a margarita too, but I was sold when I saw a Caipirinha. This is the national drink of Brazil, and something I recall sipping with vigor at this Adams Morgan neighborhood spot in Washington, DC, called The Grill from Ipanema. It consists of sugar cane liquor and lots of lime, making it a great warm weather beverage, but will light you up.
I had no clue what to order for dinner. It’s a big menu, lots of different flavors going on, and extensive explanations for each dish are offered. Our waitress was awesome all night. She brought us this lovely Cuban bread that was feather-light and had crisp outer crust. It was still warm and there was a ball of garlicky herb butter to spread across it.
We ordered a round of appetizers for the table – Croquetas de Pollo y Jamon ($6.75), which look like little fried bullets. They contain Serrano ham and chicken, and are topped with Antillana sauce. This was a great app for four people, very substantial and great to share. Watch ordering individual appetizers. They are horribly tempting but portions are large at Havana Rumba, and it would be easy to run out of room early.
At this point I didn’t want anything too complicated, and I seriously had the munchies, so I went for something guaranteed – the namesake sandwich. The Havana Rumba ($9.75), comes with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and tangy mustard. It may sound pedestrian, but it’s a taste explosion. It arrives on hot-pressed Cuban bread that is grilled flat and crisp. A side of sweet potato fries is included, along with a smoked honey dipping sauce. This grub was so delicious I started unconsciously guarding my plate from possible intruders.
Do try the roasted pork in some variety and the fried plantains. You’ll thank me later.
The Fricase de Pollo also was amazing. This is a Cuban favorite, and is made with boneless chicken and potatoes, slow cooked in wine, tomato Creole sauce, and served with rice, black beans and sweet plantains ($11.75).
If you are looking for beef, try the Vaca Frita ($12.25). This is shredded beef, grilled until crispy with bell peppers, onions, garlic and lime juice, and is served with rice, black beans and sweet plantains. This is like a cross between fajitas and old-fashioned country-style hash. It’s comfort food of the highest order.
Next time I really want to try the Masas de Puerco ($13.50), where morsels of marinated fresh pork are fried until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, and it comes served with congris and sweet plantains.
If you like flavor, such as garlic, you will love Havana Rumba. They go through 40 pounds of garlic alone each week. Just the aroma of sautéed shrimp, in a sizzling sauce of butter, garlic and lime sauce, makes a visit worthwhile.
Havana Rumba is owned by Marcos Lorenzo, a civil engineer by trade, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 2000. The first Havana Rumba was born in 2004. The much larger Middletown location opened in 2010. Lorenzo also is behind the Mojito Tapas Restaurant, which opened in 2007.
There is a passion in Havana Rumba’s food. The chefs do an outstanding job of capturing these old family recipes handed down from generation to generation. I MUST, MUST, MUST come back here again soon. I want to order some wonderfully exotic entrée, but also want to eat that sandwich again too. Oh the choices. Come check out the fusion of salsa and flamenco music, the exotic fare and the island cocktails at Havana Rumba.
4115 Oechsli Avenue | 502-897-1959 | Hours: Mon-Wen 5PM-9:30 PM; Thu 11AM-9:30PM; Fri 11AM-10PM; Sat 12PM-10PM; Sun 12PM-8:30 PM | Menu
12003 Shelbyville Road | 502-244-5375