My experience at Havana Cabana — a restaurant serving a twist on Island Cuisine in a warm, inviting environment — has to be broken into two separate experiences to accurately describe how different they were.
On the first visit, the whole night was colored by the unfortunate timing of the meal and some technical issues with the dishes that my dining partner and I were served. The meal started with the coconut shrimp appetizer ($13.95): four largish shrimp, deep-fried with coconut shavings in the batter. The shrimp were tender, juicy, and well-fried and decently presented, although for the price the quantity seemed a bit light. Accompanying the shrimp was an Island mango chutney that was sweet and tempered only by shards of fresh mint.
It took two tries to get our "authentic Cuban" mojito ($8) correct — the first erring on the simple syrup and rum side at the expense of the key elements: mint and lime. After commenting on the lack of balance, the bar remade the drink with a more appropriate level of mint and lime, resulting in a much more refreshing drink for the hot day that it was.
It was at this point that we ended up waiting for around an hour for the Cabana Cuban Sandwich and the Jerky Chicken Island Toast to arrive to our table. The staff handled it as well as they could — the small kitchen was overwhelmed with an unannounced large party in the spacious upstairs dining area. In a nice touch, the staff did offer a complimentary duplicate of the shrimp appetizer to tide us over while the main dishes were getting ready.
When the dishes finally arrived, the Cabana Cuban ($14.95) was visually impressive: a large sandwich cut in half with pile of sliced, fried plantains filling the rest of the plate. The well-seasoned pulled pork was the element that made the sandwich worth it while the cucumbers added some needed freshness. But a light pickle on the cukes or some more zing in the aioli would have made the dish really sing.
The Jerky Chicken Island Toast ($13.95) — a pizza made from the same Cuban bread base but with less proofing — had a complete lack of balance. For the thickness of the crust, it was topped with way too much cheese which resulted in an undercooked, unappealing gummy layer of dough. The toppings weren't much better: dried out dry-rubbed chicken breast that didn't exude any aspects of jerk flavor; crispy plantains that had no business on the pie; and a distribution that left slices blank. It seemed like the actual crust might have some merit if it were cooked correctly, but this wasn't a dish that I would want to revisit.
We finished with a one-dimensional bread pudding that brought only mild cinnamon and sweetness to the table. Topped with whipped cream and accompanied by a weak caramel sauce and a commercial-tasting chocolate syrup, there was little else worth noting. No contrast in texture or flavors on a dish that seemed like an afterthought.
The first visit was not positive, but I hoped for the best when my partner and I walked through the doors for the second time. Thankfully, this time the service and timing of our meal was spot on and we were able to focus on the food instead of our rumbling stomachs. Upon getting seated in the main dining area, our waiter convinced us to get an order of the fish tacos ($3 each on Wednesdays) for an appetizer. I'm happy that he did; it was the best and most complete dish that we were served.
The tender tilapia base was seasoned well with a dry rub and salt kick, and the Cole slaw topping added crunch, creaminess, and a welcomed touch of spice. Havana Cabana's corn, bean, and tomato mix was present here and made a good addition to the party. A lime slice was provided for each taco and when squeezed over it made for a really well balanced bite and a top notch taco.
We moved on to the Cuban Harvest Paella ($28.95), an offering that could easily serve two people with its large portion of seafood, sausage, and chicken, all over a bed of saffron rice and a rich broth. Unlike the Spanish version that is served with a crispy layer of rice with all water boiled off, the Cuban style ends up with liquid remaining in the mix after cooking. The remaining broth had a mild peppery kick, but was overly heavy with butter giving a greasy feel to the dish as a whole. Some brightness would have livened up the melange of ingredients and tied everything together.
Really, it was a lack of seasoning that was the issue on the Island Jerk Pork Loin entree ($21.95), with every element other than the sauce needing some character whether it be from spice, salt, or acid. A whole pork loin was slow cooked for 18 hours and then pulled, which left portions of dark meat that held up nicely. In a disappointing turn, though, the meat had a light generic Barbeque taste and none of the trademark spice, warmth, or smokiness that is expected when something is advertised as being "jerk" flavored. A powerfully sweet and tangy blackberry-tinged Barbeque sauce was served on the side and was OK in small tastes with the pork, but quite overpowering in any larger quantity.
The flambéed flan left a strong positive final impression. In a pleasant service touch, a small shot of clear rum was poured over the slightly overcooked flan and was lit on fire at the table. Thankfully, the alcohol mostly cooked out leaving a pleasant warmness to go along with the darker, burnt sugar taste of caramel sauce. Even the little touches of toasted coconut in the sauce and the fresh fruit worked with the dessert as a whole.
Following our last dining experience, I spoke to Havana Cabana's head chef and owner, Trey Yager, about how the kitchen let flavors loose in dishes like the fish tacos and the flan and made the food shine. He explained that at the beginning, the menu was more traditionally oriented and over time had been altered to meet what the restaurant thought most people were looking for. In general this tended to cut some of the more potent flavors I like to see with this kind of food. I can't strongly recommend the food overall, but Havana Cabana has a popular bar area, pleasant servers, and an environment worth checking out.
To read more dining reviews from Chris Lindstrom, visit his blog, Food About Town, at foodabouttown.com. Follow Chris on Twitter: @stromie.