Bar report: Soul de Cuba

Left: El Presidente, right: caipiriniha. Photos by Randy Wong.

Soul de Cuba
In Chinatown, 1121 Bethel St.,

For the most part, Soul de Cuba lives up to its name: The Afro-Cuban theme permeates the food, music and decor. It has an interesting rum selection, yet the cocktails leave something to be desired.

The Vibe
Warm, with earthy hues of red, orange, and yellow. The walls are adorned with paintings of Cuban orishas—spirits or deities from the Yoruban religious system—and in the back bar, one can watch concert videos of groups like the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

Soul de Cuba is the second location of the same concept opened by restaurateur Jesus Puerto. (The first is in New Haven, CT.) Opened July 2006, Soul de Cuba is Puerto’s vision for a restaurant that educates patrons about Afro-Cuban culture through food, cocktails, music and art.  The restaurant keeps a cultural guidebook on hand with introductions to the orishas’ mythology, Cuban music, and each of the rums.

The Spirits (the drinkable ones)
Cuba is known for its production of rum, and it’s Soul de Cuba’s rum list that drew me in. Its list boasts 17 rums, including three from Cuba (of the Ron Matusalem line). Other highlights in the rum category include Rhum Baita, a hard-to-find French-style rhum from Martinique; the sippable Ron Zacapa 23-year, a premium rum from Guatemala; and Pampero Aniversario, an aged Venezuelan rum with notes of toffee, vanilla, and caramel.

Rum flights are available.

The Drink Menu
Soul de Cuba has nine renditions of classic drinks; the majority of them rum based. My favorite was the caipiriniha, made with LeBlon cachaca, a fermented sugarcane spirit from Brazil. The cachaca, lime, and sugar were nicely balanced, and the earthiness of the cachaca was not overpowered.

The El Presidente, however, was a different story. Known as the house cocktail at Club El Chico, a Greenwich Village-spot credited withintroducing the rhumba in 1925, the El Presidente is supposed to be made with white rum, orange curacao, French vermouth, and grenadine, stirred and served ‘up’ in a chilled cocktail glass. Soul de Cuba’s version had rum, pineapple and grenadine—on the rocks. The menu described it as “a pleasingly tart mix,” yet the one that I had was nearly candy-sweet.

Soul de Cuba is better known for its food, and rightfully so. Favorites: the beef empanada (puff pastry stuffed with seasoned meat), an aromatic and spicy black bean chili, and fricase de pollo, chicken marinated with Spanish olives and onions. Soul de Cuba has my favorite rice and beans in all of Honolulu, and what better way to wash it down, than with a nice caipiriniha.

Drinks average $10, with rum flights averaging $15.  The prices are reasonable, but the drinks are average. 

To Be Improved
For a restaurant with a great rum list, I was disappointed to see a drink menu that focuses on white rums, which tend to have little flavor of their own.

Overall, the drinks could be better executed. Fresh citrus is a plus, but some drinks lack balance; measuring ingredients could help.

Cocktail geek Randy Wong is a former bartender and beverage consultant. His cocktails have been cited in many books, including Off The ShelfDrink & TellFood & Wine’s Cocktails 2010: Mixologist All-StarsBeachbum Berry: Remixed, and at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress in NYC. He’s known for his expert knowledge on tiki music and cocktails.