Relations between the United States and Cuba may have begun to thaw for the first time in decades, but Philadelphia residents don’t need to book a flight to Havana to get an authentic Cuban experience. Located at 1623 Walnut Street, the Stephen Starr restaurant is anchored by chef Douglas Rodriguez, the American born son of Cuban immigrants and father of Nuevo Latin cuisine. The first striking aspect of the restaurant is its facade, which draws pedestrians with its authentic Cuban architecture and irresistible Caribbean charm. The Art Deco details are much sooner found in Havana than in Center City Philadelphia.
Once inside, patrons are greeted by a first floor lounge, dimly lit for atmosphere. Across the walls are projected scenes from agrarian Cuba. To the left, a bar covered in red mosaic tiles and wrought iron is backed with exposed brick. Here one can enjoy a mojito, glass of sangria, or any other libation off the menu which is heavily influenced by Latin America and Spain.
Alma de Cuba sports an excellent happy hour menu featuring $6 mojitos, sangria, and glasses of cava. Various bar snacks are available for $6 and under as well. After a refreshing mojito, those wishing to continue their evening are directed up to the second and third floor dining rooms. In contrast to the exterior of Alma de Cuba, the dining rooms are filled with upscale white leather seating and sleek modern lines. The modern design provides a gateway from the traditional to the Nuevo Latin cuisine which Chef Douglas Rodriguez serves with pride.
For those who have chosen to skip the first floor lounge, a great place to start the Cuban adventure is with a Classic Mojito or Original Caipirinha. The Mojito features Bacardi Superior, mint, lime, and sugar while the Caipirinha is made with cachaca rum distilled from cane sugar, limes, and sugar. Both cocktails are light, refreshing, and pair well with most options across the menu.
For starters, there is no better place to begin than with a selection off the ceviche menu. Diners may choose from a wide selection of ceviche dishes by themselves or may combine various offerings into platters of three, five, or eight. One cannot go wrong with any of the choices, but of special significance are the Thai Young Coconut Mixto (lobster, shrimp, calamari, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, Thai basil, and sweet lime) and Ecuadorian Shrimp (shrimp, fire-roasted tomatoes, orange juice, avocado, and corn nuts) dishes. Those who wish to have an appetizer without a seafood focus should direct their attention to the Royal Palm Dates which are almond stuffed, wrapped in bacon, and covered in cabrales bleu cheese or the Empanadas de Verde stuffed with spinach, manchego, and artichoke escabeche. The dates are both sweet and savory, with the right amount of crispiness from the bacon and tang from the cheese while the empanadas are silky smooth inside of their baked crust.
The hallmark main courses include two unforgettable, authentic Cuban experiences; the Lechon Asado and Vaca Frita. When the Lechon Asado arrives at the table, the aroma of roasted pork mixes with the sour orange mojo sauce to compliment the sight of beautifully carved slices of pork atop congri rice. The pork is traditionally seasoned, fork-tender inside, with an immensely flavorful crust. The Vaca Frita is elegantly plated with the pan-seared skirt steak flowing across a bed of black beans, white, and tomato escabeche. The perfect side dish to accompany either of these entrees is the Plantains. Deliciously sweet and covered with a suero de leche sauce.
To round out the wonderful Cuban experience, patrons are encouraged to enjoy a cigar, the Chocolate Cigar dessert that is. An award winning dessert composed of almond cake wrapped in chocolate mousse, dusted with chocolate, and served with dulce de leche ice cream. Although delicious, the presentation in which parts of the cigar are lit on fire table-side makes for a very memorable dessert.
Alma de Cuba delivers a taste of Havana without having to brave a flight to the Communist nation. Authentic cocktails and dishes abound, creating an inviting alternative to the traditional night out at the neighborhood Italian trattoria or steakhouse. An exciting atmosphere filled with uptempo Cuban music, excellent Nuevo Latin cuisine, and superior service awaits those willing to adventure to Alma de Cuba!