Cuban Revolution comes to city's Middle East, lays an egg

First restaurant for new Hopkins campus makes lukewarm impression

April 06, 2013|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

A Cuban Revolution has come to East Baltimore.

The city's Middle East neighborhood is just a few blocks away from Johns Hopkins Hospital, but there was seldom any reason for outsiders to wander in. That has changed.

Amid protests from some longtime residents and others, most homeowners in the area were relocated and their houses — along with many that were abandoned and dilapidated — were torn down. Now Middle East is being developed as a mixed-use life science campus. The anchor tenant is the Science & Technology Park at Johns Hopkins, but the 80-acre area will include other research facilities along with new housing, parking and a six-acre central park.

A residence hall and a parking garage have now joined the area's first completed project, the Rangos Building, which has just about filled up its ground-floor spaces with tenants — a bank, a convenience store, a pharmacy and, as of February, the neighborhood's first new restaurant.

Which brings us back to Cuban Revolution. Not much else would.

Baltimore is the first location in the Mid-Atlantic region for the restaurant, which started in Providence, R.I., where there are now two locations. Another is in Durham, N.C.

Seen in photographs, the original Cuban Revolution — which is no longer open — looks gritty and charming, the kind of place that people like to discover. The one in Baltimore comes across like a college dining facility, something you might find in a renovated student union.

It's big and functional, with wide expanses of windows up front and plenty of television screens scattered around showing sports. Walls are decorated with oversize artwork depicting revolutionary figures and neon beer signs. And at the back, the open kitchen is framed by an artsy installation of television monitors that are meant to show newsreel footage from the 1950s and 1960s. When we saw them, they were all showing the restaurant's logo. Either way, it's a cute totalitarian touch.

Its website says Cuban Revolution has received no end of flak, or even bomb threats, for featuring Fidel Castro's image on its walls. "You don't open a restaurant with a name like Cuban Revolution and expect not to be noticed," it says. The space is meant to recall the days, the website says, when "JFK was a President ... not an airport. When universities were hotbeds of political dissent. When the Rat Pack, Bardot and Marilyn were center stage and the promise of revolutionary Cuba filled the air." The stance seems sincere, and the restaurants in Providence and Durham work with local charities through their Charity Revolution program.

Ed Maribito, who founded the original restaurant, has said that the Baltimore restaurant will do similar work here, and that he looks forward to being a good neighbor in a new community.

The best way to approach and evaluate Cuban Revolution might be as a meeting place for a new neighborhood, one where few current residents have any real roots.

You could even argue that the smartest way to go about bringing everybody together is by making everyone equally unhappy — by serving food that is mostly bland but occasionally weirdly bland, and by making it all very slowly.

The food is not good, and it's not served nicely. Even a passable appetizer like chips with mango salsa looks lame because the salsa is served in a plastic cup meant for condiments. The aioli dip for an appetizer of fried green plantains had separated by the time it came to our table.

The shrimp on the gambas aioli appetizer were too small and rubbery but did have a nice touch of garlic flavor. The only decent appetizer was goat cheese and sweet piquante peppers from a jar on slices of flaky, buttery Cuban toast.

Among the entrees, the best was the clams chorizo de Espana, a bowl of clam-flavored tomato broth filled with baby clams and chorizo. Its strong clam flavor was welcome.

Shrimp Tropical was an innocuous plating of barely seasoned shrimp with roasted vegetables, sweet plantains and a truly pretty grilled pineapple. Bay of Pigs was portabello empanada served with a bowl of black beans and rice for $15. The Cuban Picadillo was a bowl of cinnamon-flavored ground pork with a few olives, raisins and olives.

The menu also offers Cuban sandwiches, wraps and a signature hamburger with grilled pineapple, mango aioli and havarti cheese.

The bar takes forever to make undrinkably sweet mojitos and weak margaritas, but it wasn't making any of its advertised specialty milkshakes when we visited. Service was sloppy. But that happens when the food isn't good.

Fighting a revolution is like running a restaurant. You have to care a lot, or at least make people think you do.

Cuban Revolution Restaurant and Bar

Rating: zero stars

Where: 1903 Ashland Ave., Middle East

Contact: 443-708-5184,

Open: Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers $5 -$10; entrees $14 -$22

Food: Cuban-themed pub food

Service: Distracted

Best dishes: Clams chorizo de Espana, black beans and rice

Parking: Metered street parking

Children: Not much for the little revolutionary.

Noise level: Brassy, barlike atmosphere.

Dietary considerations: Vegetarian options are ample and easy to find.

[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]

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