Photo by Amy TheligThe garlic. What's with the garlic?
Two charming sisters and I huddled in the foyer of Habana Café, a year-old Huntington Beach restaurant that has firmly established itself alongside Felix's and Habana at the Lab as purveyors of fine Cuban food. The wait, our server told us, would be 15 minutes, but that was half an hour ago. We whittled the time by nursing Cokes and snickering at the diverse mojito-sipping bar crowd. Everything was tranquil . . . but the garlic.
"What's with the garlic?" the older sister demanded. She wrinkled her nose at its acrid stench, which wafted from Habana Café's kitchen, enveloped the dining room and greeted us near the restaurant's Old World-style wooden door. I remarked that garlic is one of the main seasonings of the Cuban diet and adds panache to an otherwise mild cuisine. "I don't like garlic!" the older sister protested loudly. "Cubans are stupid! Let's get the hell out of here!" The younger sister didn't pay attention, her eyes mentally stripping a handsome waiter.
But before I could reprimand the older one for her prejudice, the maitre d' announced our name. Another dapper server escorted us toward the back, whipped out some napkins and threw in a side of home-style confusion.
"¿Enquelepuedoayudarestanochejovenes?" ("HowcanIhelpyouthisnightyoungpeople?") he scatted in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish. "¿Lospuedoempezarconalgoparatomar?" ("CanIstartyouoffwithsomethingtodrink")
Huh? We responded in our slower, garbled Mexican Spanish that we needed some time, but now it was he who was befuddled. "¿Como? ¿Quierelasodadepiñaoeljugo?" ("Excuseme? Doyouwantthepineapplesodaorjuice?") We were all Latinos here—but he was an incoherent Cuban to us, and we were bumbling Mexicans to him. And as I slowly repeated my request for patience, I thought silently that perhaps the older sister's bigotry had a point.
Habana Café is the second restaurant of owner Martín Espinosa, who has operated a Cuban bakery in Downey for more than a decade. Espinosa bases recipes on his mami's cookbook, so in addition to Cuban standards such as the tart shredded-beef stew ropa vieja and a complimentary side of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians, the deliciously un-P.C. name Cubans give to black beans mixed with white rice), Habana Café also cooks up specialties rarely found outside Miami: crab croquettes, a spicy oxtail stew with the bizarre name rabo encindido ("flaming ass") and veggie omelets that Cubans call tortillas.
We couldn't get over the names of some of Habana Café's entrées, but the waiter kept his cool—I'm sure we weren't the first jingoistic Mexicans he had ever suffered. After allowing the three of us to mull the menu over, the classy Cuban began his tongue-twisting anew, but now slower.
"Deberíanordenar lasangríacubana," ("Youshouldorder theCubansangría") he prodded gently without explaining the difference between the Cuban and Spanish version of the fruity alcohol. The choice was tempting—half of the packed room was clinking pitchers and glasses in besotted bliss—but we're teetotalers and communally decided on his first recommendation: a pineapple juice that was fresh and sweet, possessing the proper tartness.
With a familiar drink in hand, the older sister thought she would continue to play it safe. She ordered a Cuban torta, figuring it would mimic the billowy tortas we Mexicans slap together. What arrived, though, left her further perplexed.
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"This looks like a triangle hamburger!" she moaned to no one in particular. One bite of the compressed sandwich, though, layered with two types of ham and beef and midget curly fries, and her anger disappeared like Elián Gonzalez.
The waiter then trotted out a bowl of masas de puerco, deep-fried pork chunks about the size of a golf ball adorned with sugary marinated onions. While the skin was crackling and greasy, the meat inside remained succulent and densely herbed with a jolt of parsley. This pork had flavor, not like the typical Mexican pork disaster of fat drenched in lard. Paired with a hill of moros y cristianos and a side of fried plantains, the masas de puerco was quintessentially Cuban: punchy, sweet, hefty and entrancing.
But it was the heretofore silent younger sister who struck a blow for cultural camaraderie by ordering the arroz frito. During the 1980s, a rash of Cuban-Chinese restaurants opened in New York and gained national attention from a press corps bemused at the amalgamation of two seemingly disparate cultures. Habana Café prepared a superb version of the hybrid: fried with eggs, peas and carrots per Chinese traditions; studded with shrimp, chicken, pork and ham to satiate carnivorous Latinos. It was the most appetizing rebuttal to tableside bigots since the teriyaki burrito and the final gesture that shut up three xenophobic, famished Mexicans for the rest of the night.?
HABANA CAFÉ, 18552 BEACH BLVD., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 968-1672. OPEN SUN.-MON., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; TUES.-THURS., 11 A.M..-9:30 P.M..; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-10 P.M. FULL BAR. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$40, FOOD ONLY. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.