With spring break still two months away, Yalies can find a taste of the Caribbean just a few steps off the snow-covered streets of chilly New Haven.
The corner of High and Crown streets, which has long suffered from the uninspired food and dreary atmosphere of Mom’s Indian Kitchen, has been immeasurably improved by the recent arrival of Soul de Cuba. A lively new restaurant in the space once occupied by Mom’s at 283 Crown St., Soul de Cuba features festive and charming decor and a wide variety of moderately priced entrees, ideal for a date or a night out with a group of friends.
With at least 20 people crowded into a space only slightly larger than the typical Yale common room, the restaurant is strikingly compact. But after navigating the tight spaces between tables, we found ourselves comfortably seated in a cozy space that includes both elevated tables as well as half-booths. Dim but tactfully-located lighting enhances the ambiance of the dining room, and while the colorful pictures and posters bedecking the walls do not quite succeed in making Soul de Cuba a convincing replica of a Havana cafe, they certainly contribute to the restaurant’s allure.
Even for diners with minimal prior exposure to Cuban cuisine, the menu at Soul de Cuba is remarkably easy to navigate. A diverse selection of meat and seafood offerings is clearly the restaurant’s biggest selling point, but the appetizer and salad offerings provide some — if not entirely sufficient — relief for those less inclined towards carnivorous pursuits. The fried yuca frita appetizer ($5), made from a Caribbean tuber with a consistency similar to a potato, is reminiscent of a very sweet and light tater-tot. Though presented somewhat indelicately in a large mound, the fritas are a pleasant start to the meal. The delicious spicy mayonnaise provided as garnish helps elevate this hors d’oeuvre above the staple food of Napoleon Dynamite to something surprisingly tasty.
The ensalada de louisa ($6) — while large and full of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and onions — is fresh, but overly simplistic. The preponderance of iceberg lettuce in what is designed as an entree salad leaves something to be desired, especially when a better selection of greens is available in any Yale College dining hall. In an oversight, the salad arrived at our table without its accompanying oil and vinegar, which we did not receive until the waitress was prompted.
Particularly enticing entree options include the “ropa vieja” ($13), a shredded beef, onions and rice dish, and boliche ($12), a Cuban sausage pot roast that is marinated overnight. The menu also includes several intriguing chicken and fish entrees, such as a filet of red snapper with cilantro, tomato and onion cooked in aluminum foil ($16). The bistec palomilla ($12), a thin beef sirloin steak laid across a bed of white rice and onions and served with lime, is minimalist, but nevertheless delectable. A slightly thicker cut of meat would have been nice, since the delightful mix of flavors in this rather small dish left me wishing I had ordered two steaks instead of one. But for those with a less voracious appetite, this dish should be more than sufficient. The meat is pan-seared to perfection and, though served without a sauce, its juices provide more than enough flavor. The dish would doubtless have been improved, however, had the platanos maduros — fried plantains — mentioned as a side dish on the menu actually accompanied it.
A sparse dessert menu is not particularly enticing, especially when Tasti-d-Lite is just down the street. Better to satisfy your sweet tooth on the fried plantains — that is, if they ever show up.
The waiting staff is friendly and quick to respond to any questions or requests, but the omission of such key items as salad dressing and a clearly listed side dish makes it clear that Soul de Cuba still has work to do before patrons can expect flawless service.
But while the food and service might not yet compare to some of New Haven’s more established restaurants, few other venues in town provide the combined aura, taste and value of Soul de Cuba. With nothing on the unique menu costing over $16, and hearty meals available for considerably less, it is no surprise that Soul de Cuba has attracted crowds most nights since its opening early this month.
Soul de Cuba brings a little piece of Cuba to New Haven, only in this Cuba you can come and go as you please. But once you enter this island oasis, you probably won’t want to leave.