I had wanted to review Cuba Fe Fusion Home Cooking's new ramen menu for a while, but working a nine-to-five made it next to impossible to ever walk in the door of the restaurant (1406 Third St., 204-4221), which is only open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 am to 3 pm (and, formerly cash-only, they now accept credit cards). Luckily, takeout options are available, and I made do with a large container packed with two pints of ramen alongside bean sprouts, mushroom, carrot and lime. There is something about ramen, even in takeout form, that warms the heart. After all, it is the drunk comfort food of choice everywhere from Japan to South Korea, from New York to Portland—and I wish there were a ramen joint in Santa Fe that served late, because I would probably never leave—so I might actually take off work at some point to eat at Cuba Fe in person. The ramen was just that good.
I spoke to co-owner Robert McCormick (he shares the business with David Michael Tardy) on the phone and he talks with a bright, excited energy about his concept.
"We opened up the restaurant in April, and when we opened it, we knew that we wanted to do the Cuban food, but we wanted to integrate other countries' cuisines," he says. "We're artists, we wanted to think outside the box, we didn't want to do the standard—it wasn't a conscious move, but we knew we wanted to have a laid-back, homey feel." McCormick explains that once Mu Du Noodles closed last year, the ramen concept was a no-brainer. "In the wintertime we can introduce the ramen noodles and the timing would be good, because everyone loves soup in the winter," he said.
I slurped up two bowls of spicy, semi-firm noodles replete with the veggie garnishes and sliced spinach cooked into the broth alongside the noodles and meats. I was skeptical at first as the texture of the broth seemed less fatty than I expected, but it ended up blowing me away. It was fragrant and delicious, the noodles were perfect and the meat was melt-in-your-mouth soft.
Cuba Fe boasts two veggie-based broths with noodles, either miso or soy, for $10. Chicken or pulled pork can be added for $2 extra; I had the chicken in miso and the pulled pork in soy, and the former ended up being my favorite. Soft-boiled eggs are also available, and McCormick told me he plans on adding thin slices of strip steak for $5, and maybe even gyoza, small dumplings that can be steamed or fried, down the road.
The noodles, however, were the star feature of the soup, sourced from a Japanese company called Sun Noodle that has small-batch kitchens spread out all over the United States (and caters to some pretty high-end restaurants, from Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York to Daikokuya in Los Angeles). Sun Noodle uses a water process that originated in Sapporo, arguably the ramen hub of Japan, that involves alkalizing the water to impart the perfect al dente, chewy texture to the noodles. That texture really was what sold it for me—remarkably fresh-tasting while thick and hearty, yet slightly soft and a far cry from the instant version I grew up eating in my poor-college-student days. Not to knock that, though, since there are plenty of wonderful ramen joints devoted to the instant concept. In fact, there is a wide spectrum of ramen spots out there in the world, from the gourmet to the hole-in-the-wall, and it can be hard to judge the first glimmerings of the trend in Santa Fe without knowing what kind of framework to compare it to—but Cuba Fe knows what it wants to be.
"We're not the Four Seasons," McCormick tells me. "We just believe in having the core of our business contribute to the famous art culture in Santa Fe. Food is art. My life is not about being a Wall Street millionaire, it's about having my soul be happy while I contribute to the community."
The pop-up ramen menu at Cuba Fe is a step in the right direction in terms of what can work specifically in our town. I admired McCormick's positivity and his willingness to embrace a new sort of restaurant paradigm. Would it be nice to have a local restaurant that only serves ramen? That's an exciting idea, but given how difficult it is to cultivate a large enough clientele, maybe unrealistic as well. But a flexible, globally minded lunch spot that serves ramen on the menu with an eye toward other styles of cuisine? Perhaps this concept has the mutability to adapt and evolve without becoming pigeonholed.
Santa Fe is starved for diversity, and even though Cuba Fe is only open for a small window during the week, it is absolutely worth seeking out. It was one of the best things I've eaten all week.