In the 17th century, inhabitants of Barbados were becoming increasingly famous for a drink they called kill-devil, described in 1651 by a Caribbean island visitor as "a hot, hellish and terrible liquor." It might sound like a lethal-level cocktail akin to a corpse reviver or widow's kiss, but according to American historian Alice Morse Earle, this is the first written reference to the spirit now known as rum.
Distilled from sugarcane molasses, rum has a storied past. Along with crystallized sugar, it sparked the slave trade that desecrated Africa and was often associated with acts of piracy throughout the next century. George Washington served a barrel of rum at his inauguration. Even the standardized proof rating stemmed from testing for watered-down rum.
But eventually, its popularity declined, particularly as bourbon gained more converts.
"We never expected rum to be the next vodka or bourbon," says Andy Himmel, owner of Bomba Tacos and Rum, which opened in Rocky River in April. "People drink rum when they're on vacation."
Opening a rum bar in the suburbs of Cleveland was a risk that has paid off for the 35-year-old restaurateur better known for Bomba's sister concept, Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar in Woodmere. In less than a year, Bomba has expanded to two more locations in Fairlawn and Hallandale Beach, Florida.
"The popularity of bourbon over the last five, six, seven years has helped us to transition people to at least try [rum]," he explains. "People are getting really comfortable drinking them."
And try you can.
The back of Bomba's dinner menu contains 56 different rums, from a $25 glass of St. Nicholas Abbey 10-year to a tot of local Portside Distillery spiced rum. Divided into five categories — spiced, white, dark, gold and aged — these rums are sold by the glass, in a tasting-sized pour or as a flight. The super aged flight ($18.50), one of the more expensive on the menu, showcases a Dominican variety, another from Guyana and a Ron Zacapa Centenario from Guatemala, Himmel's favorite.
Side by side the rums look, smell and taste completely distinct from one another. One is woody and earthy, another citrusy and sweet, the last smoky and rich like molasses.
"There's a lot of variation from rum to rum," says Himmel. "There's a discovery element to our brand that adds value to a guest."
Although young, Himmel heads what is now his seventh restaurant. The founder and CEO of Paladar Restaurant Group, Himmel was influenced by his father, who owned the erstwhile Boarding House in University Circle, which closed in the 1990s.
Shortly before graduating with a degree in finance and accounting from the Ohio State University, Himmel established his own restaurant, the now closed seasonal American Boulevard Blue on Larchmere Boulevard.
"I don't know if it was more the restaurant or more the entrepreneurial side that I was attracted to," Himmel admits. The combination worked, and in 2007 he took on several partners to open Paladar Latin Kitchen at Eton Chagrin Boulevard, which subsequently expanded to six locations in four states.
While you may think you've had your fill of taco restaurants, Bomba is a refreshing departure from the expected. Yet in a city deep in the throes of a food fling, it almost feels wrong to learn that a restaurant concept we really like didn't come from some dusty recess in a well-used recipe book, but from an entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity.
"There's a lot of taco concepts," Himmel begins. "Almost all of them have — it's like a checklist: Has to look unfinished, check. Has to be Day of the Dead, check. Has to be spray-painted and feel really edgy, check. And I'm not knocking them; I love those restaurants. We're just looking to be something a little bit more refined."
It's a look and feel that Himmel describes as softer more than upscale. The lights are a little bit twinkly, the paint on the walls and the potted plants are inviting and warm.
As is the food, inspired by Cuban and Latin American cuisine.
Breaking from the constraints of a strictly Mexican or Brazilian or Cuban restaurant, the more broadly defined Latin American flavors at Bomba make this restaurant work as more than a bougie happy hour hangout for middle-class suburbanites. Fresh, bright flavors married with a range of textures overwhelmingly satisfy, even if every dish isn't always served at the correct temperature.
Naturally, tacos are Bomba's tortilla and butter. More than a dozen options, priced at either $3 or $4 apiece, span the Central American palate, and nearly all are satisfyingly complex. The grilled sweet potato and hearts of palm taco ($3) with tomatillo salsa is smoky and lightly sweet with a toothy bite that's rare for vegetarian fare. Lamb barbacoa ($4) with radish and lime crema offers gamey and tart flavors that are a hands-down favorite. And the crispy avocado taco ($4) — achieved by batter-dipping and frying thick slices of soft avocado — is a surprising dark-horse champion.
A palm-sized torta, or sandwich, packs a ton of flavor between two fluffy rolls. While there are several options to choose from, the messy chorizo and fried egg torta ($9.50) is well worth a few extra napkins thanks to moist, crumbled chorizo sausage with just the right amount of heat, a cool, crisp cabbage slaw and a runny egg.
Traditional-leaning entrees and creative salads aren't completely ignored on Bomba's menu, and if you go this route, spring for the ropa vieja ($18). The Cuban-style stew was carried over from Paladar's kitchen and includes a side of caramelized plantains, the starchy and not-too-sweet cousin to bananas.
Bacon-wrapped jalapenos ($6) stuffed with portobello mushrooms and drizzled in chipotle honey taste much better than their loglike appearance. The tilapia ceviche ($6) with tomatillo and peanut, meanwhile, is a fresh take on the classic cocktail snack. While stunning in presentation, it could stand to be cut smaller or thinner to allow the citrus juices to penetrate to the center of the flesh.
One of Bomba's most popular menu items is the do-it-yourself guacamole ($6 to start), mashed chunky-style and customizable with mix-ins such as candied pumpkin seeds, goat cheese, bacon, pickled jalapenos, corn and black beans. The coup de grace is its thoughtful selection of yucca, plantain, malanga and tortilla chips, taking this appetizer way beyond the expected.
Through it all, the sipping rums round out the zingy tastes of Latin America. The tiny glasses empty, slowly but steadily, their emanating warmth contributing to a feeling of conviviality and familia, which is, after all, the real essence of the Latin table.
When You Go: Bomba Tacos and Rum, 19880 Detroit Road, Rocky River, 440-409-0210, bombatacos.com, Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
try this : The pomegranate-ginger mojitos are malty and clean with fresh muddled ginger, mint and a splash of sour pomegranate juice judiciously tempered with cane sugar and stirred with a sugarcane swizzle stick. It's hard to order just one. So go during happy hour, 3-6:30 p.m. weekdays, for the $5 deal.
good to know: Gluten-free diners rejoice, this is your new go-to place. Ask for a dedicated gluten-free menu but dine happier knowing that it's nearly identical to the regular menu thanks to flour-free corn tacos, a plethora of herby sauces made without thickeners and a reliance on traditional Latin American starches such as plantains and yucca.
Take a tour through the New World of sipping rums.
So you're a whiskey connoisseur (and who isn't these days?) but you haven't tossed back a sugar-based spirit since your college Captain-and-Coke days. Bomba Tacos & Rum owner Andy Himmel's got your back. "I never would have had a [rum flight] in college," he laughs. "But these are unbelievable flavors. There's an approachability to it, and a lot of variation from rum to rum." Thanks to the Caribbean's long history of colonization, the wild variation in culture among the islands translates into distinctive rum traditions — from sweet and barrel-aged to smoky and smooth. Which means your journey is just beginning. Read on for a guided tour of Himmel's favorites.