When I lived in New York, there was this small hole-in-the-wall Cuban restaurant in Brooklyn I’d frequent. It was painted bright turquoise outside and inside, the walls were covered in colorful art reflecting the culture of the food and its home country. I go back and forth on my feelings on leaving New York, and escaping to New Mexico was one of the more sane choices I’ve made in my life. I don’t miss much, but the food—that’s hard.
Luckily, Santa Fe's food scene is diverse. You can find a lot of great places representing a large swath of the globe's foods. It shocks when it seems like something is missing, or when you bump headlong into the ceiling of early and/or strange hours. Enter David Michael Tardy and Robert McCormick's Cuba Fe Home Cooking (1406 Third St., 204-4221) to fill the Cuba-sized hole in our lives.
They rent the space three days a week, 11 am-5 pm Monday-Wednesday, from owner Balam Lemus (hence the large "Cocina de Balam" sign out front), as Lemus operates mostly in private events and out of a food cart on the Plaza. Cuba Fe is identifiable by the Cuban flag hanging outside and the always-open front door.
Once inside, McCormick or Tardy will personally welcome you. The tables are covered in light tablecloths and music hums in the background. The menu is a hand-written board hung on the wall.
It feels like a place that has been there for a long time; almost like that place in Brooklyn. There was an immediate sense of family as McCormick, a Cuban-American whose mother is from Havana, directs me to the board and told me about their recent additions, the latest being picadillo, a sort of meat hash with vegetables and a fried egg on top. This joins chicharron and Cuban yellow rice and beans.
I opt for the medianoche sandwich ($9) and a slice of flan ($4). The classic pork, ham, Swiss, mustard and pickle grilled sandwich is always a good choice, with flavors that combine in such a unique way as to create tang and comfort both. The Cuban sandwich is a mainstay that originated with Cuban immigrants in Florida. There are many variations, but all have ham and cheese on a simple baguette-like loaf. It's an item that pops up on menus across town; none really get it right the way Cuba Fe does, though.
The medianoche's bread is amazing and flown in from Miami, McCormick's hometown. It's made with a challah-like egg dough with a sweet taste and is softer than the more common bread used in Cubanos, which has a small amount of lard in the dough (meaning it's rarely good for more than a day). Medianoche, on the other hand, has an almost creamy light yellow color, and I devoured it quickly. McCormick explains the process for their pork, which marinates in mojo for 12 hours overnight, becoming tender enough to fall off the bone. Mojo is an amazing condiment, a blend of orange, garlic, oil, oregano and cumin. It's a hidden secret in the kitchen and is just as good as a dip or marinade. Hunks of the prepared meat are pulled from the bone for either the sandwich or on its own as lechon with beans. The balance of the acidic marinade with the cheese and pickles is divine.
As I finish, the flan appears. Rather than most sickly-sweet or flavorless versions, Cuba Fe's is caramely and dense, the syrup a perfect gooey consistency.
Cuba Fe's big issues are hours and location. They are really only a lunch place at the moment, but have promised a full breakfast menu soon. For now, they want to be a place people hang out, but operate in an off-the-beaten-path part of town with minimal hours. These drawbacks could overcome McCormick and Tardy's clear excitement and talents in the kitchen—but hopefully not.
The sandwiches are traditional and make the trek to the back streets off Cerrillos Road worth it and, honestly, Tardy and McCormick's energy is addictive. It's hard not to sit there listening to their plans and eating their food without wanting it to thrive.
The pair is active on Facebook and update daily with new specials.
- The sandwich is stuffed with meat
- Plating is not a concern, but it’s a sandwich
- Flan is a perfect color, covered in gooey sauce