Taste of Havana â¢ 3018 Tazewell Pike â¢ 687-2311
by Gay Lyons
Iâ’ve always wanted to go to Cuba and have hopes that someday this will be possibleâ"though my friends from Cuba tell me the island I envision no longer exists. They tell me of peeling paint and of 1950s cars kept running by magician-mechanics; I envision sunsets and beaches and food and drink: mojitos, empanadas, picadillo, black beans and rice, and Cuban sandwiches. Until I make it to the island, it turns out I can find authentic versions of those thingsâ"except for mojitos, as Taste of Havana does not serve alcoholâ"on Tazewell Pike.
Itâ’s a cheerful place with lots of small tablesâ"including a few outside on the sidewalkâ"and brightly colored murals. I liked the one that evoked the southernmost point in the U.S. in Key West with the â“90 miles to Cubaâ” sign.
There are two specials each day, and many of which sound intriguing: carne con papa (Cuban-style beef stew with potatoes), pollo al ajillo (grilled chicken breast sauteed in garlic mojo and grilled onions), abo ensendido (oxtail stewed with onions and garlic in savory tomato sauce). In addition, there are five regular lunch specials (all priced at $6.95) which include such dishes as chicken fricase (a stewed chicken dish) and filetillo de carne (Cuban-style pepper steak).
I love picadillo, one of the lunch specials, so I ordered that along with congris (black beans and rice cooked together) and tostones (refried green plantains). Ben, my lunch companion, ordered lechon asado (traditional Cuban style roasted pork marinated in mojo sauce), black beans and rice (cooked separately) and platanos (fried sweet plantains).
The picadillo was slow-cooked, soft and spicy, with the beef, onions and peppers almost completely absorbed into the tomato sauce and the olives reduced to salty little slivers. We had been warned that congris is a dry dishâ"and it is. It wasnâ’t bad, but I discovered that I preferred the black beans and rice cooked separately. The soft grains of rice made a nice bed for the moist, slightly spicy and saucy black beans. The flattened tostones were tasty enough that I ate every bite, but after tasting both, I decided that I really preferred Benâ’s plumper platanos, which were sweet and juicy.
The pork was savory, but it seemed just a tiny bit dry. Toward the end of the meal, Iâ’m almost ashamed to admit, we discovered why: We had both overlooked the small portion of extra mojo sauce that was placed on the table along with the food. About the time we noticed it and figured out its rightful role as accompaniment to the pork, we didnâ’t have much pork left. If youâ’ve never had mojo (pronounced mo-ho) sauce, itâ’s often described as Cuban barbecue sauce. Itâ’s typically made of olive oil with lots of fried garlic, cumin, and sour orange juice. Taste of Havana serves some awesome mojo sauce. Next time I order something cooked with mojo (roughly half the menu items), you can bet Iâ’ll look for that extra portion of it.
Because it didnâ’t seem right not to try the Cuban sandwich, I returned by myself a couple of days later and ordered one to go along with a beef empanada. The sandwich had the distinctive taste Iâ’ve come to associate with a good Cuban sandwich. I think itâ’s the saltiness the pickles and ham add to the pork and swiss cheese that does it. The bread has to be done correctly, tooâ"and this one had that nice, crisp press. The large empanada was lightly friedâ"just enough to heat the beef and slightly brown the flaky pastry. Itâ’s a good thing the sandwich comes cut in half. I easily made two meals of my sandwich and empanada.
This is hearty fareâ"a treat for the body and the soul. And, in my case, both body and soul are looking forward to going back and trying the pollo frito (mojo seasoned Cuban style fried chicken) and the mariscada (yellow rice with crab, shrimp, octopus, fish and chorizo slow cooked in beer).
All content © 2007 Metropulse .