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Cuban classics: Havana Restaurant offers terrific interpretations of island favorites

Havana Restaurant in the Northeast Heights is one of Albuquerque’s most inconspicuous eateries.

Its entrance is in a corner of a strip mall under a sign that says “Restaurant.”

Keeping with the low-key approach, there is no website, only a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated since 2011.

Despite the low profile, Havana has not escaped the notice of locals. It’s in its 12th year of dishing out ropa vieja, arroz con pollo and other Cuban specialties. During much of the pandemic, it was running as a takeout-only operation, but now the dining room is open and operating at 75% of capacity.

Dipping inside from the spartan exterior, I found the small dining room surprisingly elegant, with embroidered tablecloths, fine china and plush banquettes around the perimeter. Closer inspection suggested it might be time for a makeover, as the carpet is a little tired and some of the banquette cushions are patched with duct tape.

During a recent lunch hour, two servers rotated around the dining room, deftly switching between Spanish and English depending on the customer. Music, mostly reggaeton, played unobtrusively in the background.

While Cuban food turns up on the menus of such places as Guava Tree Café and A Taste of the Caribbean, both in Nob Hill, Havana is the only restaurant in the city devoted to it completely. One side of the concise menu offers Cuban specialties organized by protein. Various preparations of pork, chicken, beef or fish (salmon or tilapia) are available, with prices for most dishes falling about midway between $10 and $15. Entrees are served with sweet plantains called maduros and a choice of rice and black beans served separately or cooked together.

There’s also a roster of daily specials, such as chicken fricassee and arroz con pollo for $12.85.

Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s national dish, is served at Havana with rice and beans and sweet plantains. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Ropa Vieja ($13.50), Cuba’s de facto national dish, is named from the Spanish for “old clothes,” an appellation that seems highly unappetizing until you learn the origin story. Apparently, there was a man who was so poor he had to cook his own clothes for sustenance. When he prayed over the boiling clothes, they miraculously transformed into a succulent dish of slow-cooked meat and onions.

Havana’s version is made from flank steak cooked until it’s falling-apart tender. The portion is deceptively large, and as you keep going deeper into the bowl, the savory, slightly sweet mix of shredded meat, onions, red peppers and garlic gets juicier and juicier. It’s served with maduros, sweetly caramelized and starchy as a potato, and a purplish, moist mix of rice and black beans. Take the leftovers home for a great sandwich the next day.

Speaking of sandwiches, the back of the menu offers a few choices for around $10, along with salads, sides and drinks.

Havanas Cuban sandwich with slow-cooked pork, ham, cheese and pickles. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Havana’s Cuban sandwich ($9.50) is a classic presentation, the baguette pressed around layers of ham, melted white cheese and slow-roasted pork. Yellow mustard and a layer of pickles add brine and tang. The fixings are well balanced, and the pork was so good I found myself tearing off pieces and eating them separately.

A papaya shake, one of several fruit shakes offered at Havana Restaurant. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Drink selections include Cuban favorites such as Materva, a soda made from yerba mate, and the pineapple soda Jupina. For something more substantial, there are a number of shakes made with milk, fruit, ice and sugar. The papaya shake ($4.75), pale orange and thick enough to impale a straw in, was sublimely refreshing.

The lone dessert available that day was a rich, eggy piece of flan ($4.25) in a thin sauce tasting of caramel and burned sugar. It was just the thing to match with a cup of sweet, intense Cuban coffee ($1.75), served molten-hot with a thin layer of crema on top.

The servers were masked and attentive and the food came out in just under 10 minutes.

Havana Restaurant’s flan and Cuban coffee. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Havana Restaurant is worth hunting down. It doesn’t put on any airs – just terrific interpretations of classic Cuban dishes.