Cuban goes fast-casual—But wait! There’s more!
Marcos Lorenzo and his Havana Rumba co-owners had a goal when they came up with the concept for Havana Rumba Express and Tapas Bar: lean, mean, and easily replicated.
But the eatery, which had its soft opening in mid-June, is actually a little more complicated than its initial conception. As planned, it offers a fast-casual, Qdoba-style approach to Cuban food, complete with a line from which customers pick sides, meats, salads, toppings and desserts. What wasn’t in the original plan is the other, more intimate side of the dining room — a Spanish-style tapas bar, where seven high tables flank a sleek wooden bar, and hot and cold cases display the tapas that come out of the kitchen all night long.
Why the change in concept? In a word, opportunity. “This space came to the market and I think it was a blessing,” Lorenzo says. The space in question, on Bardstown Road at the Douglass Loop, used to house both Desserts by Helen and Fat Jimmy’s. At 4,200 square feet, it was way too big for fast-casual—but Lorenzo and Co. started thinking about the success of Mojito, their Holiday Manor tapas restaurant. Why not create something similar here, in the heart of the Highlands?
Thus the dual-dining-room restaurant was born. The owners decked it out in energetic shades of red, orange, and yellow and carried through the familiar cigar-box table tops diners will recognize from Havana Rumba.
Adding a tapas menu and full bar ramped up the complication factor (and staffing needs) a bit, but Lorenzo says it’s still far less complicated than a ticket-by-ticket, made-to-order restaurant like Havana Rumba. For the fast-casual side, food is made mostly in batches. A build-your-own entrée option lets diners choose sides such as rice ($1) and black beans ($2), a meat (ropa vieja, $4, lechon asado $3), salad, drinks and dessert, all priced a la carte. For heartier appetites, there are pressed sandwiches such as the Cubano ($4) and the Havana Rumba ($5) (allow 10 minutes for your sandwich to come out of the press). Aficionados of the excellent salads at Havana Rumba and Mojito can pretty much re-create their favorite salad for around $5.
Meanwhile, over the tapas bar, a hand-lettered chalkboard announces that tapas menu items will come and go through the course of the evening, as the kitchen prepares them and customers wolf them down. But with over 30 items on the tapas menu, ranging from classic Spanish (patatas bravas, $2; stuffed piquillo peppers, $2.50) to not-so-classic (hummus, $2.50; Miami hot wings, $2)—and with a Spanish chef, Maria Perez-Quiroga, creating them — the owners are hoping nobody will mind much.
Notice those prices? Unlike at Mojitos, where the dishes are substantially larger than true Spanish tapas, the offerings here are actually bite-sized. “It’s fun. The portions are small, so you can try a lot,” Lorenzo says. If you order croquettes, you get one, for $1.50. That way, “you get the chance to enjoy a lot of different things —and drinks.”
The only potential problem with the tapas concept — affordable though it may be — is that you may gobble up your favorite item all too quickly and then mourn its absence on your plate. In that case, the best solution may be the simplest: Flag down your server and order another.
Havana Rumba Express
2210 Bardstown Rd.