Casta’s Rum Bar shows lots of love for its namesake spirit — there are about 45 types or rum to choose from — but it’s not just a place to drink. The recently opened Caribbean joint in the West End also weaves in a substantial menu of dishes its Cuban-born partner used to eat as a kid.
“Every day I came back from school I needed a croqueta ready,” Arian Castañeda says. “It’s a simple dish but you have to do it right.”
The breaded snacks at Casta’s (1121 New Hampshire Avenue NW) are filled with creamy béchamel and smoked ham alongside sofrito, a ubiquitous base for Caribbean dishes made with garlic and tomatoes. Cuban chicken soup — branded as a traditional hangover cure — uses a recipe from Castañeda’s grandma, a warming bowl of shredded chicken with a chunk of corn bobbing inside.
Lots of thought went into building signature Cubano sandwiches — an everyday essential on the island. Casta’s get weekly bread shipments from Tampa’s La Segunda Ybor, a family-run bakery making Cuban bread since 1915.
“We were very particular with the bread — it’s what makes a big difference,” Castañeda says.
The Cubano takes various forms at Casta’s. The roasted pork and glazed ham that go into the sandwich also make their way into one of four empanadas. A medianoche, or “midnight” sandwich, is a traditional late-night snack that comes on softer, sweeter brioche bread.
“The other day we had a big wave of people ordering sandwiches — we actually ran out of bread,” Castañeda says.
Plantains also play a big role. There’s a vegan green plantain soup and tostones — twice-fried and pounded plantain discs popular in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine — accompanying sandwiches and shrimp.
“They’re a big part of the meal. They have to be there,” he says.
Maduros, or sweet plantains, are wrapped in bacon with a base of queso blanco and guava cream sauce for a sweet-and-savory starter Castañeda says he “could have all day long.”
Ceviche Caribeno, full of wild fish and cured in lime with mango, pineapple, and cucumber, is a favorite beachside snack back home. Thin plantain chips act as dippers.
Chef Alberto Vega, a Puerto Rican native with his own local catering company, studied at the International Culinary School of New York and formerly worked at the Willard. Castañeda and Vega met as neighboring vendors at a food-and-cigar event in D.C. (Castañeda owns his family’s fourth-generation cigar company).
“We started talking eating, smoking, drinking, and it was a perfect connection,” he says. “Whatever I was smelling got me.”
Since the kitchen space at Casta’s is limited behind the bar, the goal was to keep the menu simple.
Another nostalgic dish is black bean hummus, a puree popular amongst teething kids — and “old people,” Castañeda jokes. At Casta’s it’s served with plantain chips and a fruit and avocado salsa. There’s also a meat and cheese board built for two alongside marinated olives and bread.
Desserts like churros and a guava cheese flan are ideal endings. People can also puff one of his family’s blended cigars on its dedicated patio. Cigar-rolling and rum pairing classes are in the works.
Vinoda Basnayake, the nightlife guru behind Shaw cocktail spot Morris American Bar and underground lounge Heist in Dupont Circle, co-owns Casta’s. While there is a full bar, he’s hoping to turn more vodka or whiskey-only drinkers into rum lovers. Basnayake made sure even its rail liquor, Havana Club, was a solid one.
“[Distributors] ran out of dark Havana Club rum in the DMV because of us,” he says, of opening week sales. “They had to go to Baltimore and just made a delivery.”
The bar also sold so many mojitos it ran out of sugar cane sticks. Happy hour slashes prices on drinks from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., with $5 bottled beers, wine, and $10 cocktails.
Highlights from the opening cocktail list from beverage director Doug Fisher (Morris) includes a Saoco with aged rum, lime, coconut water, soda and an El Presidente with aged rum, Lillet, grenadine, and bitters.
There’s also four frozen cocktails served in glass goblets that’ll stick around all year, prepped behind its outdoor onyx-lit bar. Options include a frozen daiquiri (classic and strawberry) and caffeinated Sexo Tropical with cognac, rum, Red Bull Coconut Edition, and watermelon.