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Havana Restaurant: Passport to Cuba
Friday, 12 November 2010
Photo by Wes Naman
The traditional flavors and flair of Cuban food receive proper representation at near NE Heights eatery Havana

By Cristina Olds
It is not too cold for mango milkshakes. At Havana Restaurant, one of Albuquerque’s Cuban eateries, the batidos come in typical Caribbean tropical fruit flavors, like papaya, guayaba and plátano ($3.75). On a recent visit, mango was the shake of choice, and choice it was. Creamy, frothy, fruity deliciousness was shared by the table, and it stayed thick and frozen during the whole meal.

Our server Santiago, a gentleman in his 60s who lived in Miami for 23 years, was completely cheerful while helping us make choices in his flirty Spanglish. At one point during our visit, Santiago turned up the Salsa music and started snapping and singing as he cruised between his tables and the kitchen.

Well-lit and clean, the interior space is comfortable and tropical, although a little confusing with three zebra skins as the main wall hangings. A small bar at the entrance to the kitchen lends to sitting and conversing with the friendly staff.

I recently spent nine months in Costa Rica, with some travels to Nicaragua and Panama. While living in Central America, one of a handful of local dishes I learned to cook was fried plantains. The hard, green bananas can be cooked at various stages of their ripening, for different variations on the sweetness of the fruit. Cubans call these tasty treats, maduros ($3.25).

ImageWe didn’t ask for any dipping sauce, and Cuban food isn’t known for spiciness, but the maduros were especially plain. In Costa Rica they were called patacones, and we’d eat them like tortilla chips, with refried beans, sour cream and guacamole. Our server offered salt, which did make the starchy side dish more savory.

Moving on to main courses, we sampled beef, pork and fish. The big winner was the Ropa Vieja (literally “old clothes”). This shredded marinated beef dish ($9.50) is typical fare in Cuba and other countries of the region, and it did not disappoint. Moist with tomato sauce and salty to perfection, the Ropa Vieja was meaty excellence.

We also tried the Bistec de Tilapia (tilapia filet, $10.50) and Masas de Puerco (pork chunks, $9.50). When dining on the coast, fish is plentiful. At Havana, they also carry salmon and both fish dishes can be ordered breaded or fried. The generous cut of tilapia was rubbed with lime and garlic and grilled just right — still flakey inside with a toasty, crispy outside. The spices in the pork dish were somewhat similar to the fish, and although the meat was tender, it was a bit dry for my tastes. However, the serving was plentiful and had a crisp, gentle crunch, with hints of salt and lime.

Most of the entrees on the Havana menu are served with Cuba’s traditional black beans and rice flavored with onions, garlic and the ubiquitous salt. Known as moros y cristianos (translation: “Moors and Christians”), this simple side, all at the table agreed, was perfectly prepared and paired well with all the dishes.

ImageAnother traditional dish found on the Havana menu is yuca con mojo (cassava with Cuban sauce, $3.25). Served as a side dish, the pieces of yuca (a starchy tuber) had a soft, slightly dense bite, and the mojo sauce was bursting with flavors of onion, garlic and lemon. We ate every last bit.

Unlike many restaurants, the big finish really does come during the dessert course at Havana. My dining companions and I happily sampled a smooth cup of Cuban coffee ($1.10) — a thick shot of espresso dosed with a load of sugar. It was served in a charming demitasse cup imprinted with the phrase “I [Heart] Café Bustelo.”

The apex of our dining experience came in the form of arroz con leche (rice pudding, $2.25) with, “a secret ingredient of the house.” We guessed it might be candied lime, but Santiago wouldn’t fess up. The pudding was the perfect texture, with tender rice nubs delightfully blending with the cinnamon-tinged cream.

Not content with just one dessert, we also ordered flan de leche (milk flan, $2.80) and were not disappointed. The silky consistency and subtle sweetness of this classic and elegant custard dish wasn’t drowned by the caramel glaze, as can often be the case.

Santiago allowed my table to hang out and chat until almost 10p, and was very gracious when we realized the restaurant was trying to close. It should be noted to prospective diners that it was a bit difficult to find Havana, which is tucked in the northwest corner of the large strip mall just east of Baillio’s on Menaul. Despite the lack of lighted signage, my dining companions and I felt lucky to have found and relished the traditional taste of Cuba right here in Albuquerque.

Havana Restaurant
5331 Menaul NE, 505.830.2025
10a-9p, Tue.-Thu.
10a-10p, Fri.-Sat.
10a-6p, Sun.

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