Tiny Ceviche Bar brings a slice of Havana
Get your fix of Cuban fare at the new Ceviche Bar, a tiny 35-seat restaurant in the East Village that opened in the middle of September with an equally tiny menu of dishes and drinks.
That’s all intentional, meant to evoke the feel of a true restaurant rolled right out of Havana with Des Moines artist Keelia Paulsen’s “Latin Beat” series of paintings peppering the walls.
Now that the United States has full diplomatic relations with Cuba again, it seems the perfect time to explore some of the cuisine from that island country a mere 90 miles from Florida.
Owner Tanya Suarez pulled from her family’s Cuban heritage to assemble dishes that she grew up on. It’s the kind of place to pull up a barstool on a lazy afternoon and drink El Presidentes, nibble on a Cuban sandwich and then lounge outside with a cigar and a Cuban coffee while talking to friends.
Suarez is starting small to recreate the restaurants parents described in Havana, which they left separately in the 1970s.
“The menu is very simple, just like in Cuba. I wanted to start with something simple but also delicious,” Suarez says a she hops back into the kitchen. She’s just run out of the flan after a rush at lunch.
After Felix Suarez died in 2013, Tanya knew it was the right thing to do in his honor. The menu from starts with a Cuban sandwich, a dish she says her father specialized in.
“This is the only authentic Cuban sandwich in Des Moines. Everyone else is doing weird things like serving it on foccacia or adding peppers,” she says as she sets down the dish with a hearty side of rice and beans, a Cuban staple generally called arroz con frijoles.
Suarez makes the Cuban bread in house, then slathers on thick hunks of roasted pork, thin layers of ham, melted Swiss cheese and those essential pickles, mustard and a garlic mojo, a garlic-tinge olive oil drizzle. She compresses the sandwich in a panini press. Cuban comfort food, if you will.
She also has that namesake ceviche on the menu, not necessarily a Cuban dish, but more of a Latin dish. “It’s just something I liked and I knew I could serve it with a lot of things on the menu. It ties in with the ceviche theme. It’s just something I felt was lacking in the Des Moines area.”
Don’t be afraid of the raw fish dish. Citrus juices of lemon or lime “cooks” the meat. Suarez uses tilapia now, but plans to swap out seasonal fish caught in Rhode Island and then shipped overnight.
She uses shrimp as well with her ceviche, and serves it with avocado, lime juice and cilantro in a martini glass with quarters of Cuban bread on the side. That dish can show up on a salad or in a Bloody Mary as well.
The flan, too, is a family recipe, a small circle of creamy custard with caramelized sugar drizzled over the top.
The menu also includes a steak sandwich on that homemade Cuban bread, Spanish chorizo and cheese, those black beans and rice, and salads, with the ceviche or steak as an option.
Everything comes in under $11.
Soon, Suarez plans to add new daily features such as ropa vieja, a shredded beef on top of rice with plantains, or a pollo fricasse entree. She also wants to add dishes to the menu, including fresh fish entrees.
The restaurant picked up its liquor license on Sept. 24, so alcohol is just arriving in the space. A short list of six wines make the menu, but ignore them and go for one of the cocktails. Nary a well liquor was in sight for the Cuba libres and mojitos, all made with Bacardi rum, which like Saurez’s family, has roots in Cuba. While the restaurant was experimenting with drinks, expect Cuban influences to run high here.
A must-try El Presidente uses orange Curacao and white rum with vermouth and grenadine to make this classic drink that rose to fame at Club El Chico in Greenwich Village in New York City. The drink from 1925 was referred to as the “elixir for jaded gullets” by regulars who learned to rhumba there.
For those who want to explore a Cuban coffee, Suarez makes one with sweetened milk and espresso. The restaurant is talking about adding a brandy and coffee after-dinner drink as well as a chada latte.
A roster of nine cigars sit in a humidor on top of the bar and range in price from $11 to $17.50. Just don’t expect to see any genuine Cuban cigars for the time being; so far, visitors to Cuba can technically only fly back with $100 worth of cigars. A box of 20 sells for around $400 in Cuba. But they will be on the way.
Perhaps the most exciting addition, Suarez’s mother Maria, who was born in Havana, joins the cast of characters at Ceviche Bar, adding even more the authenticity of the place.
Address: 233 E. Walnut St.
Hours: Mondays through Saturdays for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays