Overall impression: From the traditional exterior walk-up service counter to the decorative tiles on the floor and walls, the wrought-iron filigree on the staircase and balcony railings, and the wall of framed publicity photos of Latin stars from a bygone era, Havana Restaurant in West Palm Beach is steeped in the ambiente auténtico of pre-revolutionary Cuba. There is an elegance of a sort here, which is not belied by the absurdly oversize menus laminated in plastic, or the heavily polyurethaned wooden tabletops. Rather than physical, that elegance is something expressed — as pride in a national cuisine well prepared and expertly served.
The rapid, colloquial Spanish of Cuba reverberates among the diners, which is always a good sign, yet Anglos feel equally welcome here. While the items on the bill of fare are titled in Spanish, there are extensive English rubrics explaining the dishes to the uninitiated. If uncertainty persists, the waiters couldn't be more accommodating with their clarifications.
The food: Cuba has always maintained closer cultural ties to the mother country than, say, Mexico, and its cuisine reflects that influence. Anglos often mistakenly think of Cuban food as spicy, when in fact a more-accurate characterization is solid, rich in flavor and — most overwhelming — heavily reliant on garlic. A penchant for the "stinking rose" is essential to an appreciation (even toleration) of the menu at Havana. Anything presented "al ajillo" (which translates loosely as, "Don't breathe on your friends for a couple of days"), delivers a dizzying punch. The bistec especial havana ($17.99), for example, which is a generous cut of skirt steak marinated in spices and olive oil to exquisite tenderness, comes with an innocuous-looking, green-chimichurri dipping sauce on the side that will have fumes coming out of your eye sockets. It's definitely not a dish to order on a first date. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
As for the appetizers, two stand out, and this also brings us to a discussion of the table service. Our waiter, Domingo, wove a compelling description of the pulled-pork tamal special ($9.99) with such enthusiasm that one would have thought he had raised the suckling pig himself. His recommendation was solid. The shreds of pork, with sautéed onions piled on a layer of cornmeal, all arranged on a corn husk, were so delicately seasoned and so succulent … Dios mío! Equally impressive was the sabor havanero ($9.99), an appealing arrangement of Cuban favorites such as deep-fried cassava stuffed with ground beef, hush puppy-like breaded potatoes, a stuffed-pastry empanada and dainty cylinders of ham and Swiss cheese secured by toothpicks crowned with froufrou and ranged along the gunwales of the oval platter like artillery pieces on a Spanish galleon. This is an excellent dish for sharing among two or four diners.
Entrée excellence: Domingo, whose dramatic talents are wasted in a restaurant, leaned over conspiratorially and said in a low voice, "Señor, may I recommend to you the surf and turf [$25.99] special, which is the skirt steak accompanied by four fat shrimp al ajillo" — uh-oh — "with a side of rice and black beans." Here, he brought his thumb and forefingers together and kissed them. We were sold, but forwent the standard side dish, choosing in its place the deep-fried green plantains (they came with their own mouth-puckering dipping sauce) and a salad. The shrimp were indeed plump, and the ajillo treatment was like scampi on steroids. We also selected a picadillo ($12.49), an aromatic, traditional dish of ground beef simmered with spices, olives, chopped onion and peppers. This was relatively mild, compared to the robustness of the surf and turf, yet satisfying in taste. The black beans that came with it — the preparation of which separates average Cuban restaurants from great ones — were rich, thick and subtly flavored. It was a home run.
Sweet! No Cuban meal is complete without flan ($5.99 for the large size — enough for four to share). This is a freestanding custard drenched in caramel, topped with whipped cream. The Havana's flan was of the grainy, rather than slick, variety, and the caramel had the perfect edge of bitterness from the burnt sugar. We finished all this off with a café cubano (sweet espresso, $2.19), and our traditional tour of la cocina cubana was complete. All we lacked was a 1958 Chevy to ride home in.
6801 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner, 24-hour walk-up window
Credit cards: All accepted
Bar: Beer, wine, sangria
Sound level: Can be loud
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Children's menu