“Havana, ooh na-na.” As it had been all morning, Camila Cabello’s earworm was stuck in my brain as I walked toward the new Habana in Irvine Spectrum. But as soon as I entered the restaurant, it was as though I went through a wormhole. I wasn’t in 2017 Irvine anymore; I was in 1950s Havana—those halcyon days before Castro’s revolution took over the island state.
I passed by a restored Predicta tube TV that had a Carmen Miranda film on a loop, her tall headdress full of fruit. Above me, an ornate Baroque chandelier soared. Below that, bartenders swirled mojitos. They wore Ricky Ricardo straw hats behind a bar painted a bright Art Deco blue. This was what the Havana high life might have been like back then—the Cuba of fables, of film, of Desi Arnaz singing “Cuban Pete & Sally Sweet” with Lucille Ball in his arms.
More than the original Habana in Costa Mesa, this incarnation of OC’s most beloved Cuban restaurant is, to put it simply, a Cuba theme park. If it’s not the most detailed re-creation of a bygone time and place in Orange County since Disneyland’s Main Street, it’s certainly the best-looking restaurant in Irvine Spectrum by far. There’s even a cute side room that functions as a bakery and coffee shop, a mini Porto’s without the lines.
The restaurant is also on its own island, so to speak, separated from the rest of Donald Bren’s mall mainland. Its perimeter is actually bordered by tropical banana plants whose fan-like leaves swayed softly in the breeze as I ate outside on the patio.
It was out there, eating al fresco on a ’50s-diner Formica table, that I most felt as if I were sunning at a chic outdoor café on Miami’s South Beach. As salmon-pink umbrellas fluttered over my head, I sipped water from an antique glass chalice more appropriate for absinthe. And when I ate my meal, it was off patterned china that could’ve come from grandma’s cupboard.
Ordering from the lunch menu was easy. It’s the same roster of dishes that Costa Mesa’s Habana has been offering for more than two decades. There was a list of appetizers that included pork croquettas and ceviche, a salad section, sandwiches, and rice-anchored main plates I’d seen before. But somehow, sitting there on the patio, it all felt as fresh as it did familiar.
My meal started with a complimentary bag of three kinds of chips: taro, cassava and sweet potato—each tuber sliced in-house, fried, then served hot with just enough oil left on the surface to remind me they weren’t store-bought. If I knew they wouldn’t throw me out for loitering, I would’ve sat there all afternoon, asking for refills of those chips, then dipping them into the sauces they came with. These included an addictive roasted-red-pepper-and-garlic salsa; a brash green chimichurri; and a bean purée that was so thick and rich it could’ve been a meal unto itself.
For an appetizer, my server steered me toward the empanadas—three chicken-filled half-moons enveloped in pie crust so tender I was able to pick up every crumb by mashing it with my fork tines. Besides the great pastry shell and white meat minced to the consistency of snow, there was a vibrant mango slaw, a sharp jalapeño crema, and a banana-habanero ketchup that actually did taste like banana and habanero.
For a sandwich, I ignored the burger and focused on what really mattered: the media noche and the Cubano. One uses a softer sweet bread roll, the other a baguette. Both are layered with the usual hallmarks of slow-roasted pork shoulder, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo and mustard, all compacted under a hot press until each strata fused with the next. I chose the media noche at my server’s suggestion, and it was as good a rendition as I’ve ever had. Each bite was rich in pork, but undercut by the pickles and mustard—a formula that has always distinguished Cuban sandwiches as one of the world’s greatest.
I would’ve eaten the whole cheesy thing if I didn’t also order the ropa vieja, the classic Cuban dish of braised beef torn to shreds resembling rags. It’s served over rice and accompanied by a tall cup of spicy sofrito black beans and three pieces of fried plantain I saved for dessert. And as I ate it, getting more and more nostalgic for a time and place I’ve only seen in movies and I Love Lucy reruns, the conga beats of salsa music from the restaurant’s unseen speakers finally drowned out that Camila Cabello song in my head.
Habana, 708 Spectrum Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 419-0100; www.restauranthabana.com. Open daily, 7 a.m.-midnight. Lunch entrées, $13-$23; dinner, $20-$31. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.