Cuban Burger, as you might guess from its name, is known for its American-Cuban cuisine, and more specifically, its burgers. In 2015, the restaurant ranked in the top 20 best burgers of Virginia, according to Thrillist. Burgers, however, are uninteresting to review, so I enter the restaurant with an open palate.
A sign greets me with a choice: one arrow points left for the bar, the other right for dining. The restaurant is one long sliver, the bar and dining spaces separated by a hefty wall. There is a doorway in the middle, though, for easy passage if you feel you made the wrong choice at the door.
The first thing I notice is the darkness: dark wood, rust-red floors, olive walls, black tableclothes. Painted in black on the brick wall is the shape of Cuba, which I first mistake as a Freudian ink blot. A small lamp emits a warm glow from the back drink bar. The only other light in the room filters through the large front window. The deeper I venture into the restaurant, the more I feel like I am walking into a bear cave.
The dark, burly atmosphere is reminiscent of a Cuban whiskey bar in Ernest Hemingway’s day, a styling choice that is entirely on purpose, according to Cuban Burger’s website. In 1940, the American novelist bought a home outside Havana, Cuba, where he lived with his wife for 20 years, frequenting two of his favorite whiskey bars: La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Both bars sported — and still sport — the same dark color schemes and warm wood accents found in Cuban Burger.
I struggle to read my menu in the dim lighting, wishing for a tea light of some sort to guide my decision. I end up choosing The Cuban Chop Chop, a basic rice dish with black beans, cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, cilantro, and original garlic-lime and aioli sauces. The main dish sells for $8, with a $5 option to add chicken, steak, pork, shrimp, or a vegetarian protein substitute, probably tofu. I add the chicken and a cup of black tea for a total of $17. If you split your portion with a friend, the meal rings in under $10 each.
My tea comes first, delivered by my waiter, who looks like he was hired to match the manly bear-cave theme. The teacup is so huge I barely manage to fit both hands around its girth, and it obscures half of my face when I tilt it for a drink. Cuban Burger does not offer size small, it seems, but I am not complaining.
The Chop Chop does not come in small, either, with enough food on the plate for two people my size. Drizzled atop the assorted ingredients are Cuban Burger’s signature sauces, which add a zest to the dish that my tastebuds cannot get enough of.
As I chow down, I realize why this dish is called The Chop Chop. Yes, all the vegetables are chopped, and that would be clever, too, but I find myself eating the thing lickety split, like someone told me to eat my lunch chop chop. The flavors mingle in my mouth — spicy, tangy, crispy, sweet, savory — and I have to dig in for the next bite to keep the flavors going, and going. Before I know it, my half is gone, and I am left full, staring at my plate, wondering how in the world someone created such a masterpiece.
I have set a new rule for myself: do not order things at restaurants that I cannot make for myself at home. The Chop Chop definitely fits the bill: unique, satisfying, and worth venturing into a bear cave for.
Check out Cuban Burger for yourself on 70 W. Water Street, open at 11 a.m. daily. Closing hours may vary.