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For a quick bite or three-course meal, Kuba Kuba is worth the trip.

Taste of Havana

Lately, things Cuban seem all the rage. But Kuba Kuba, one of Richmond's two Cuban restaurants, need not rely on the trendiness of its namesake to attract its clientele. Instead, it appeals in the old-fashioned way — with interesting food, good service and an appealing atmosphere.

Brightly colored murals and Cuban-style merchandise adorn the walls of this Fan restaurant, imparting the feel - or what I imagine might be the feel — of a neighborhood joint in Havana. Strictly speaking, Kuba Kuba's menu probably reflects fusion Cuban cuisine rather than strictly authentic Cuban fare, with ingredients like portobello mushrooms, pesto and salmon cropping up here and there. But authentic or not, Kuba Kuba's fare offers a welcome breath of fresh air in the Richmond restaurant world.

Start by treating your palate to whirlwind tour of Kuba Kuba's kitchen with the dazzling entremes ($9.95). Billed as a "Latin antipasto plate," this giant appetizer is replete with interesting morsels such as grilled Chorizo sausage, queso blanco (a soft cheese) scallop ceviche, tasso ham, roast garlic, artichoke hearts, asparagus, marinated olives and Cuban toast. Or for something a little less disorienting, try the empanadillas ($2.95), excellent savory pastries filled with your choice of spinach and ricotta or "picadillo" described as Cuban beef hash. Wash it down with a refreshing limeade and prepare for round two.

Don't overlook the sandwiches. Kuba Kuba takes its $6 sandwiches every bit as seriously as its $12 to $16 entrees. Its traditional Cuban press sandwich ($5.95) is one the finest sandwiches available in Richmond, if not on the planet. It's made on Cuban bread, a sort of soft French baguette, and it's filled with roast pork, Smithfield ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard. Then it's grilled and pressed flat in a process that miraculously transforms it into an irresistible creation much greater than the sum of its parts. Also available, and almost as delicious, are a portobello and a turkey-press sandwich.

But if it's a full-blown dinner you're after, then save the sandwiches for a lunch visit because there's plenty to choose from here. Kuba Kuba always has a specials list. A friend, who lives next door and gets meals straight from the back door, swears by whatever the kitchen is doing with tuna. On one visit, a beautiful 2-inch-thick tuna steak (a special at $15.95) was perfectly grilled medium rare, topped with a fresh mango salsa that was as attractive as it was delicious, and served with exceptionally creamy mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. On another visit, a delicious seafood sofrito ($15.95) involved shrimp and mussels in a robust wine-spiked broth served over angel hair pasta and topped with Spanish Manchego cheese.

Also worth mentioning is a penne-pasta dish with roasted vegetables ($10.95) that is so big it arrives in what looks like a small mixing bowl. It features whole cloves of roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, red peppers and portobellos with fresh basil and Manchego cheese — probably not a dish available on the streets of Havana, but a nice addition to any menu.

Dessert is not to be skipped at Kuba Kuba. A frozen chocolate coffee mousse ($3.50), served in a coffee mug and topped with whipped cream, is outstanding and, by itself, justifies a visit to Kuba Kuba. The traditional trŠs leches cake ($3.50), so named because it is made with condensed, evaporated and regular milk, is available in chocolate or vanilla and, despite its slightly inelegant appearance, is moist, rich and well worth a try. Another excellent choice, the Cuban bread pudding ($2.50) is a slightly more refined version of this familiar dish with a remarkably smooth texture.

A meal at Kuba Kuba is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The food is refreshingly unique, the staff is pleasant and the unusual atmosphere is quite engaging. Whether you're in the mood for dessert and coffee, a quick sandwich and a beer or a three-course meal, Kuba Kuba deserves serious

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