If you live somewhere long enough, you see a lot of businesses come and go. It's easy to get attached to the ones you like, especially if it's a restaurant that brings you comfort and happiness. There are a few in Bend that have closed over my 22 years here that I still haven't gotten over: Colors, Cheerleaders and Wild Oregon Foods will always be places that come to mind when I think of the Bend food scene (and Colors has been closed for like 20 years!). But the last closing that really wrecked me was when Cuban Kitchen shut down its location on Century Drive during COVID.
Owners Cristina and Chris Rojas moved to Bend from Little Havana, Miami, and recognized almost instantly that no one locally was doing authentic Cuban cuisine. Multiple Bend restau-rants have their own specific take on the Cubano, but they're usually filtered through a very Northwestern flavor profile (like replacing the yellow mustard with stone ground). From the day Cuban Kitchen opened in 2018, the people of Bend fell in love with the restaurant, with the kindness of Chris and Cristina and the food that felt timeless and handmade.
Now reopened on NE Third Street (in the old Szechuan location), Cuban Kitchen has turned the space into a vibrant and beautiful oasis. The moment you walk in and see the bright colors, the Cuban prints adorning the walls, the repurposed cigar boxes and the stunning new bar handmade by Chris Rojas, you don't feel like you're in Bend anymore.
"I want people to know that there is an experience to be had from our restaurant," says Cristina Rojas. "From the music, to the pictures on the tables, to the decor. There is nothing like it in Bend."
That's when the luxurious scents hit you: the sugar and smoke of the Colada (Cuban espresso), the sweet tang of the mojo, the ripe and sunny floral notes of the plantains...it's overwhelming. With its expanded menu and newly added table service, Cuban Kitchen still manages to keep the relaxed atmosphere of the original location while adding an intimacy and homeyness that it lacked.
I brought along my friend Christina Rosetti, the new operations manager of the BendFilm Festival, as a dining companion to help me understand the authenticity of the food since I've never been to Cuba or Miami. As a Cuban-American from the Tampa Bay area, she had mentioned to me how much she had been missing authentic Cuban cuisine and I couldn't imagine a better spot for her to check out.
We started with the 4 oz. Cuban espresso (Colada), the perfect palate starter, with the dark roast coffee being offset by the whipped sugar. It's a very strong coffee and one of the finest I've had in Bend. The Colada would also be perfect to end the meal with as well, leading me to believe that just about everything on the menu is designed to be experienced with the freedom of exploration in mind.
Chris Rojas recommended I try the slow roasted pork, marinated in mojo and topped with sautéed onions. According to Cristina Rojas, the pork is marinated throughout the day and then put in the slow cooker overnight, which explains why it was so tender it turned to butter in my mouth. I don't have much experience with mojo, the traditional Cuban sauce/marinade, but the complexity of citrus, garlic, salt and oregano that connect back over 100 years to authentic family recipes.
We tried as many things as we possibly could, from the vibrant sweet plantains, the crispy double fried tostones (with a surprisingly divine mayo/ketchup sauce), the Ropa Vieja (shredded slow cooked beef in a light and mouth-watering tomato sofrito base), the addictive moro rice (white rice and black beans prepared together) and the Pan con Bistec sandwich (thinly sliced beef with onions, lettuce, tomato and potato sticks on flawlessly prepared Cuban bread pressed on a plancha). Don't even get me started on the decadent guava puff pastry for dessert. I wanted five of them.
When someone sets foot in Cuban Kitchen and orders one of the fantastic dishes, Cristina Rojas knows exactly what she hopes people take away from the experience. "We want people to feel happiness and joy," says Rojas. "We want to awaken the taste buds for those that have never tasted Cuban cuisine before. We want to teach people a new culture from our food."
I legitimately loved everything I tried. There's a patient complexity to the dishes that seems like a step up from the OG Cuban Kitchen. The warm comfort of the new location and the deep bench of flavors makes Cuban Kitchen the perfect spot for either a quick lunch or an expansive and luxurious dinner.
Even my friend, recently transplanted to Bend and missing Cuban cuisine, had nothing but good things to say. "There's Cuban food and there's authentic Cuban food," says Rosetti. "Cuban Kitchen is the real deal. Nothing makes me feel more connected to my roots than a perfectly brewed cafecito. It takes a special science to get a sweet plantain right and they nailed it. Seasoned with precision, los tostones brought me right back to mi abuelita's kitchen when I would press and my mom would fry them." Not sure there's any recommendation stronger than that.