The first time I went to Soul de Cuba was last year, for an end of semester dinner with a seminar I had been taking on Haiti. My professor ordered seemingly everything the menu had to offer, and the feast presented to us was both impressive and borderline excessive. I left feeling as if I were about to burst. My restaurant week prix fixe lunch last Friday was a much different affair — satisfying, but not so much that I felt liable to burst at the seams at any second. When eating at Soul de Cuba, take all things in moderation — except flavor.
Heading to Soul De Cuba without making a lunchtime reservation was a mistake. We had to wait 15 minutes for a table, standing cramped between the bar and the refrigerator and awkwardly shuffling out of the way every time a waiter passed. Soul De Cuba is small, but if you have a seat it’s not so small that it feels confined — the tables are spaced just far enough apart to encourage intimate conversation. Lining the brightly painted walls are colorful, vivid Caribbean paintings and the interesting decorative choice of a flat-screen TV endlessly repeating a slideshow of old photos from Cuba. It’s a lively atmosphere.
For a first course, try the yucca fries with chili and cheese, as I did. Yucca, a starchy root common in South America, has the satisfying softness of potato fries, but is richer and creamier. Topped with a thick chili and a bit of cheese, the dish is simply divine. Despite the symphony of flavors, I’m not sure how I feel about the plastic bowl it was served in. If one is paying that much for a lunch, there’s a certain expectation that everything will be served in washable, ceramic dishes.
For the main course, I cannot recommend more highly the bistec uruguayo. It’s slightly unconventional, and I’ve never quite had a mélange of meats quite like it before: a flat steak covered with slices of baked ham and Swiss cheese, rolled into a log of meat that is subsequently breaded and fried. The meat was tender, juicy and very flavorful. My only qualm was that it was difficult to properly cut with a knife because of its highly elaborate structure, with rolls of beef that spiral around the ham and cheese. The cheese used had obviously been carefully selected — in dishes where melted cheese is only a garnish, restaurants sometimes skimp on quality, but Soul de Cuba does not. And as if the two large rolls of steak weren’t enough, the dish came with the traditional Cuban staples of rice and beans. Added to garnish were two slices of plantain, soft and cooked to sweet perfection.
For dessert, try the flan Soul de Cuba. While some flans are light and airy, as though they’ve been made with skim milk, this flan tasted as though it had been made with heavy cream. The square of rich, thick cream was one of those desserts that you must stop talking, take a large spoonful, and close your eyes to really appreciate. Drizzled on top was a sweet caramel sauce — though not too sweet, it had a body and complexity that many caramel sauces lack.
While I am not yet old enough to order alcohol, I spied a few people sitting at the bar sipping on what looked to be some delicious and carefully crafted cocktails. The beer fridge that we stood next to while waiting for a table also featured some quality imported beers — much more variety than you might find at your typical American joint.
While I won’t say that Soul de Cuba wins the prize for my favorite New Haven eatery, I would definitely go there again with a friend. Fried rolls of steak interspersed with baked ham and melted Swiss cheese aren’t for everyone — but if you’re asking me? I say give it a try.