Reviewed by Wes Marshall, Fri., Sept. 28, 2001
Habana Restaurant2728 S. Congress, 449-4252
Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday,11am-10pm
We strolled into Habana on a recent Sunday night to check out the Cuban food and live music. The crowd that night was mostly Puerto Rican and Cuban families, children included, who were chowing down on autentico cooking while listening to songs that they all knew well enough to sing along. If you closed your eyes and didn't look at South Congress, you would have sworn you were in the Caribbean. My constant search in "ethnic" dining is to discover restaurants that give you the feeling that you are on vacation in that country. I haven't yet been to Cuba, but Habana sure feels genuine.
If you're not familiar with the food, it is deep-fried, rich, and plentiful. Pork and plantains rule the roost, while sauces contain the flavors that drive the dishes from simple to something special. We started with the huge mixed appetizer plate called Un Poco de Todo ($9.95). Delicious chicken wings, an empanada, yucca frita (deep-fried mashed yucca root) and tostones (deep-fried sliced plantains) came paired with a sublime garlic sauce on the side. The regular customers were all eating the Monfongo ($4.95), a tempting concoction of mashed plantains, chicharrones (pork cracklins), and garlic rolled into a tennis ball-sized sphere and deep-fried.
We tried two entrées. The Chuletas Fritas ($5.95 a la carte, $9.95 with Arroz con Gandules and beans) were perfectly cooked, deep-fried pork chops with a spice rub and, thankfully, no batter. Platano Loco ($6.95 a la carte, $9.50 with arroz and beans) was an amazingly presented plate full of food. A huge (over a foot long) fried plantain was cut in half and stuffed with roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese. Obviously this isn't dainty food. It's a knockout punch to the appetite, but what a delicious way to get hit. We ended up with a Tres Leches cake ($3.50) that was so moist and delicious we were scraping the plate with our fingers. Habana sells this cake whole for $30, and I bet they sell a bunch of them.
I hope you're getting the idea that this food is rich. Habana has just instituted a new menu with all of the same items, a few lighter additions, and the (extremely welcome) ability to match your meat with tostones, yucca frita, monfongo, or yucca con mojo at a reduced price. This is an unassuming place, filled with happy people eating family-style food aimed at comfort rather than pretense. If you go on a Sunday, be sure to get there early. The crowds are discovering Habana, and it is not uncommon to see a large group waiting to get in. Once in, even when it is jammed, the service is attentive and helpful and exceedingly pleasant. The fact that it was slow didn't bother us one bit. We just enjoyed a beer and listened to the music until our food arrived. The music, by the way, is a lot of fun. The band is more enthusiastic than polished, but they have enough swagger to assure everyone's pleasure. Which is also a good way to describe Habana.
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