Havana Cafe is a Cuban fusion restaurant located in the Schuylerville section of the Bronx, the area past Westchester Ave but before Throgs Neck if you’re headed east. I’ve had dinner there twice before, the first time when it just opened and then again in the fall of last year. The first dinner I had there left a lot to be desired, the food was overall very bland and the staple of all Hispanic food, the rice and beans, were under-cooked making it tough to chew. Last fall on the second chance visit, the food was much improved with more thorough seasoning, spot on rice, and terrific appetizers. I recommended it for a get together with some friends, to my surprise the food has continued to improve. Havana Cafe has gone from a place that could have been skipped without much issue to a must try venue.
Along with improvement of the food itself, Havana Cafe has been going through it’s own changes. It started out at about 40 % of the size it is now. It has grown each year through renovation projects that have added a second bar top, much more dining spaces with booths towards the back end of the restaurant and increased outside seating. Through it all and even with the added capacity, the place has remained packed each time I have been there. The clientele is mostly 20 to 30 somethings, but I have seen several parties of families and older groups. You can walk in on either side of the bar now, but the hostess is over by the right facing bar when coming in from the street. Havana is located on the corner of the block and has a big wrap-around storefront with tables set up outside and inside on both the East Tremont and La Salle Avenue sides. The kitchen is straight back from the entrance on the right, the second bar and a number of booths are on the path from the left entrance.
The menu is tight and concise, not something that you would normally get from a fusion restaurant. The appetizers range from typical Hispanic fare of chicharrones, empanadas, and montaditos to the more eclectic Havana Sushi and mango short ribs. Havana also has a focus on both sandwiches and pizza to go along with their main entrees. The entrees are broken into two groups, Nuevo Cubano (New Cuban) with more modern, fusion inspired takes on Cuban dishes and Los Clasicos (The Classics) that features the more traditional fare. My group put in orders for the mango short ribs, calamari, and chicharron as the appetizers. I ordered the ropa vieja, and my group ordered three churrasco dishes and one Vaquero.
The quality of the appetizers were a strong indicator that the food has continued to improve from my last visit. I skipped the mango short and dug into the calamari and chicharron. I consider myself a snob about calamari, the honey glazed offering from Havana didn’t disappoint. While a little more crunchy than I would normally like, the flavors introduced via the spiced honey glaze are nice touch and a welcome change to the typical overly buttery or marinara needy calamari. The star of the table to start was the chicharron. It’s a breaded fried chicken breast cut into small chunks, the combination of flavors between the pickled jalapenos and the cilantro cream drive it into the stratosphere. It’s very similar to the legendary green sauce at Pio Pio without the spicy flavor, a mix of cilantro, mayo, vinegar, and garlic. I consider this a must have appetizer when visiting Havana Cafe.
Dinner, while not as delicious as the apps in most cases, was overall very good and again a strong showing of a restaurant that continues to improve. I intentionally had the ropa vieja with rice and black beans as it was the same dish I had when I tried Havana for the very first time. The meat was much more tender, as it should be for ropa vieja, evenly flavored, and overall very delicious. Mixing the rice and beans in created a strong and savory juxtaposition between the richness of the meat, the garlic flavor infused in the beans, and the sweet plantains that come with the dish. I had ordered a side of tostones as well. They were crunchy but drenched in a bit too much garlic. I got to taste the Vaquero rib eye steak as well, given the opportunity to go back, that is the dish to get. I’m a steak fan in general, but the combo of seasonings used on the Vaquero is a winner. Cooked to a medium finish, it is the best plate on the menu.
We accompanied dinner with a few pitchers of the white sangria. While it was delicious, it did not give anyone in the group any sort of buzz. You would be better off with one of their signature cocktails if you’re looking for something to get you a bit tipsy.
It’s awesome to see how far Havana has come since it opened and I can’t wait to see where it will go next. The food has gotten much better and continues to improve, and the dining area has expanded into a size that is able to hold the crowd that it’s attracting. If you’re looking for a nice dinner option, the food will not disappoint. I highly recommend it and would love to go back very soon.
Have you eaten at Havana Cafe? If so, do you agree or disagree with what I said? Let me know, leave a comment!
Havana Cafe Review reviewed by Well Fed on November 18, 2014 rated 4.5 of 5