Where salsa is music, Habaneros are people and pork is king
It came as a surprise to me that Cuban food isn’t spicy, especially since residents of the Cuban capital La Habana bear the name of the famously hot habanero chile pepper. I carried my ignorance all the way to Cuba, where I once lead a group of students to study Cuban agriculture. My expectation for spicy food, coupled with a poor grasp of Spanish, raised eyebrows at a farm when I asked about their pepinos picantes. One of my students explained to me that pepino means cucumber (but c'mon, doesn't pepino kind of sound like "little pepper?").
Havana Restaurant, on Menaul just east of San Mateo, brings back memories. The food is rich and mild. Rice and beans are ubiquitous, desserts are sweet, and meat, especially pork, is king.
Salsa music greets you before you walk in the door and doesn't miss a beat as you cross the threshold. Lushly upholstered booths scattered with pillows recall a Miami nightclub. The room is divided by a grove of bamboo trunks. Fake zebra skins on the walls are joined by photos of Habanero landmarks like the Malecón seawall and the Capitol building, which looks curiously like our own.
Ropa vieja, which means old clothes, is a dish common to many Latin American countries. Originally prepared from leftovers, it has come to mean shredded flank steak in a tomato marinade. The Havana Restaurant version is large and tasty, if a bit salty. The occasional slice of bell pepper absorbs so much of the juicy beef flavor that it can be mistaken for a stray piece of fat. It comes with Moros y Cristianos, a mixture of black beans and rice (it literally translates to Moors and Christians), and French fries. Yes, French fries. While I don’t recall eating them in Cuba, every stateside Cuban restaurant I’ve visited serves them. These fries have the uniform ridges of frozen fries from a bag, much to my chagrin. But in spite of myself, bagged or not, those fries are really tasty. And the Moros y Cristianos are spectacular, richly flavored with hints of cumin and bay leaf. A side of maduros, or fried ripe plantains, are sweet and crispy.
Meat is a rare treat in Cuba. So it’s little surprise that Havana Restaurant's pork cutlets ( masas de puerco) are excellent and large.
There’s a large selection of shakes and aguas, or milk-free shakes. The mango shake is excellent, and the watermelon agua, made with fresh fruit, is like swimming in the iced heart of a perfectly ripe melon.
Meat is a rare treat in Cuba. But if given a choice, most Cubans would probably choose pork. So it’s little surprise that Havana Restaurant's pork cutlets (masas de puerco) are excellent and large. The chunks bear a wonderful mojo sauce of sautéed onions, garlic and lemon, and a light brown crisp protects a juicy interior.
The Cuban sandwich was developed during the pre-Revolution days of easy travel between Cuba and Florida. While it doesn't seem overtly Cuban, it's become as much a part of the national identity as baseball. The classic sandwich is essentially a heated and pressed ham and cheese on baguette-like bread. It's not a complex affair, and it doesn't need to be. Havana Restaurant pulls off the Cuban sandwich, like many of its other dishes, with simple elegance. The house sandwich also includes beef, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce.
The desserts are homemade, including pastelito de guayaba, a puff-pastry with guava paste inside, and a firm-bodied flan. The flan's rich sweetness is nicely balanced by the slightly bitter flavor of lightly burnt caramel in the sauce.
If you're hoping for pepinos picantes—or anything else picante—you won't find it a Havana Restaurant. But if you like meat followed by a little sugary something, you'll enjoy the simple, carefully prepared food at Havana Restaurant.
• Masas de puerco (fried pork cutlets)
• Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans)
• Agua de melón (watermelon shake)
5331 Menaul NE, 830-2025
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $3.25 ( Moros y Cristianos) to $17.50 (beef milanesa )
Ambience: Miami nightclub
Vegetarian options: Shakes and side dishes