Havana Cafe: Simple, yet distinctive

The Rabo Encendido, ox-tail with rice, black beans and plantains. (Photo by Mark Lee)

For most Americans, I suspect Cuba is a kind of fantasyland. The island nation is just 90 miles from Key West but, due to travel restrictions and economic sanctions, this country is understood through images as much as anything else. Mention Cuba and you might get a montage, showing elegant colonial architecture in glamorous decay, portraits of Che and Fidel, seemingly ageless automobiles with tailfins, and women smoking handrolled cigars.

These, at any rate, are the images that adorn the menu at Havana Cafe, an island in its own right among a sea of strip malls, on Moller Rd., just north of 38th St.

Havana Cafe has been serving up a simple yet savory brand of Cuban cuisine in a small but sufficient slot for a year and a half. The space is colorful – the walls painted orange and red, and decorated with murals of sun-smacked seashores.

Meats feature prominently in Cuban dishes. Havana Cafe offers a range of chicken, beef and pork variations, with a few seafood options thrown in for good measure.

After ordering bottles of bright green Jarritos soft drinks (there is also a basic selection of bottle beers available), we tucked into servings of Lechon Asado ($8.95), shredded roast pork mixed with grilled onions and accompanied with rice, black beans and fried yucca; Rabo Encendido ($9.95), ox-tail with rice, black beans and plantains; and a Cubano sandwich ($6.95), a blend of sliced pork, ham, cheese, mustard, pickles and butter stacked between the halves of a fresh-baked roll that was about the size of a brick.

The presentations of the shredded pork and ox-tail were clean, fresh and appealing. White platters were arrayed with black beans served in cups and covered with a rich broth; white rice was neatly mounded to the side, fried plantains and yucca wedges were lined up and, in the case of the ox-tail, knuckles of tender, meat-covered bone were collected in a dish and drenched with dark sauce.

At first bite, the pork seemed on the dry side. This impression was offset somewhat by the grilled onions (more would have been welcome) and, decisively, by a dipping sauce that was reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing. Yucca is a tuber and, sure enough, the yucca wedges had the texture and taste of a freshly baked potato.

The Cubano was a slab of a sandwich – a single order is really plenty for two people – with generous portions of ham and shaved pork, melted cheese and pickles. I would have liked a little more mustard in the mix, and made good use of the sweet and tangy sauce that came with our order of pulled pork. Next time I'll make use of the bottle of hot sauce that I didn't notice on our table until it was too late.

The star, by acclimation, of this meal was the ox-tail. With meat that practically slid off the bone and a big tasting, dusky sauce that brought along a whiff of wood smoke, this dish was a great example of how something simple can also be truly splendid. And when a mouthful was complemented by the plantain's custardy sweetness, the result was marvelous.

One hopes that reports of loosening travel and trade restrictions, making Cuba even more accessible, come to pass. Until then, we don't have to settle for images of this fascinating place. We have Havana Cafe's distinctive version of Cuban cuisine, as well.


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