The Santa Fe New Mexican Interviews Cuba Fe!
Cuba Fe hopes to fill two culinary niches in Santa Fe
By Tantri Wija | For The New MexicanJul 4, 2017
Cuba is the new black. Ever in the news, that once forbidden island is now a popular destination for Americans (although who knows if that will last) and Instagram can barely contain the trove of beautifully filtered photographs of a place that is, in some ways, a living time capsule. But as anyone who has spent time in New York or Miami knows, Cuban culture, Cuban immigrants and, of course, Cuban food have always been deeply entwined in the American melting pot.
Just not so much in Santa Fe. Until now.
Enter Cuba Fe, Santa Fe’s newest Cuban/soul food joint, located on Third Street just off Cerrillos Road. Co-owners Robert McCormick and David Michael Tardy met in New York and have been best friends for about two decades. Both worked in the music and film industry in audio and music postproduction, and both burned out on city life and film work. McCormick has lived in Santa Fe for six years, where he currently does web design and social media management (soon, he hopes, to be subsumed entirely by food). He convinced Tardy to follow him to the City Different four years ago.
“I said if there ever comes a point in time when I do not enjoy this anymore, that is when I’m out,” Tardy says. “And I got to that point.”
McCormick is half-Cuban (his mother is from Havana) and grew up in Miami. Tardy is Italian, Polynesian, Lakota Sioux and Filipino. But Tardy’s primary food influences come from his adopted parents, who were African-American and raised him on soul food.
“We both love to cook, and we both have been raised in our grandmother’s and mother’s kitchens,” Tardy says. “This was actually a retirement idea for us, the way we wanted to spend the rest of our days. And then we said, ‘Carpe diem.’ ”
“We want to wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work,” McCormick says.
Those lucky enough to have spent time in Miami might be familiar with the addictive wonder that is Cuban food, a circus of Latin, Caribbean and European flavors zinging with tart citrus juices and spices. The flagship item on their menu is a Cuban sandwich, a crunchy, pressed wonder traditionally made with layers of slow-cooked pork, ham, cheese, mustard and tangy pickles — the zing from the mustard and pickles is what makes it. You can also order just a dish of lechón, the same slow-roasted pork that comes in the sandwich, served with Cuban rice and beans. The distinctively vibrant flavor of lechón comes from the mojo, the sauce in which it marinates overnight, which is made from orange juice, lime juice, olive oil, salt, garlic, cumin and oregano. The pork is then roasted for about 12 hours.
“It’s so tender that you can just grab the bone and pull it right out,” says Tardy.
You can also get fried bananas (fried plantains are also in the offing, eventually) and a particularly divine house-made flan. On weekends, they will soon begin serving arroz con pollo, a sofrito-flavored rice with chicken baked into it (a popular dish for parties), and the Cuban favorite ropa vieja (translated as “dirty clothes), a dish of shredded beef cooked in sofrito and vinegar, served over rice. You can also order Cuban chicharrones, crispy fried pork skin, or picadillo, a dish of ground beef, garlic, onions and tomato — essentially ground beef cooked in sofrito, the mix of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro that is the basis for many Latin foods. All of that, and mojo, is what gives Cuban food its joyful tang.
“And you throw a fried egg on top of everything,” McCormick says — which is true, everything on the menu can be served with an egg.
“That’s the velvet,” Tardy adds.
While McCormick, as the bona-fide Cuban, is tacitly in charge of the traditionally Cuban side of the menu, Tardy comes up with the more fusiony items, like his Cuban eggs Benedict that involves French bread, ham, bacon, roasted lechón, two poached eggs, homemade hollandaise sauce and the tart mojo marinade on top — already a popular item for them. Tardy also will bring in authentic soul food items, like collard greens and shrimp and grits, and the two cuisines seem to marry well together, with a little Southwestern flair thrown in when warranted.
“I brought my mother’s southern cornbread from scratch,” Tardy says. “I also do a Hatch green chile cornbread. That sells out every day. People order that a lot with the picadillo.”
Cuba Fe thus hopes to fill two culinary niches that this otherwise restaurant-saturated town sorely lacks.
“As soon as we opened, a customer came in and said, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness. Finally there’s a Cuban restaurant here. Now all we need is a soul food joint.’ And we were like, OK, perfect,” McCormick says. They also offer take-out and, in case you want to share the Cuban and soul food love with your friends/wedding/birthday, they do catering.
Cuba Fe, which has been operating three days a week for the last three months so far, is slowly taking over the space currently known as La Cocina de Balam, a little homestyle neighborhood joint owned by local food cart operator, community activist and magic man Edwin Lemus. Lemus was formerly running the place as a restaurant, but has been focusing on his food cart, Balam’s (on the Plaza), so the restaurant space was more or less lying fallow. McCormick and Tardy both credit their ability to open a restaurant for about $1,200 on Lemus’ generosity.
“Balam made it all possible,” Tardy says. “Robert had approached him about doing the restaurant, and he could see our passion, and he said, ‘Hey, my place is empty. Let’s do this. When I came to this country as an immigrant with my dreams, people helped me out. I want to do the same for you.’ Here is a man that is from another country that is living his dream helping two American citizens realize theirs.”
Cuba Fe will be changing its hours as of Wednesday, July 5, and will now be open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. McCormick and Tardy are keeping the menu short and sweet, for the moment, focusing on making the items they do serve sublime.
“You want a small menu where everything is awesome. This is a two-person operation,” McCormick says.
“They have Five Guys Burgers — this is two guys Cuban,” Tardy adds. “People have said they can feel the love that goes into our food and into our service. That, to me, is priceless. That’s what we want to provide. The home, loving experience. One of the most satisfying things is to be able to make someone happy with food.”