Cheap Eats 2007: Cuba de Ayer

From the looks of the strip mall outside, you’d hardly expect this place to be as colorful and exciting as some of the livelier restaurants in downtown DC. That this hole in the wall does it for a fraction of the cost is a testament to owners Jessica and William Rodriguez.

This is a handsome space with padded black booths and chairs, red walls lined with prints and photographs of Old Havana, and a constant stream of rumba and samba. And on the table, lovingly cooked renditions of Cuban classics.

Bay leaf is unmistakable in the terrific black beans, as are strips of roasted red and green peppers and a bit of cooked pork. The empanadas and croquetas—the empanadas filled with chicken or beef, the croquetas with ham—are surprisingly light for such hearty fare. The rich, comforting chicken soup teems with corn, sweet potato, and cut-up chicken parts. The lechon asado is tender and crusty-edged; ropa vieja, the dish dubbed “old clothes,” is a shredded tangle of slow-cooked beef. All main courses come with mounds of oiled rice and sticky sweet plantains.

The Cubano is good, not great, and oversalting occurs from time to time, but any shortcomings are forgotten over dessert: a creamy square of tres leches cake and a cup of strong café con leche, not too sweet.

Open daily except Monday for lunch and dinner.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.