Sunday, August 14, 2011

Habana Tapas Gives Brooklyn a True Taste of Cuba

Any Miami native is familiar with the ubiquity of Cuban cuisine. It is not treated as a special “ethnic” food as it often is here in the big NY; it is simply the sustenance of the land. It is no surprise to find pastelitos de carne at the gas station or a supermarket stand doling out shots of rich Bustelo while you grocery shop. Spoiled with this kind of accessibility, this Miami Cuban finds it uber frustrating when she cannot find a decent croqueta or ropa vieja without an exorbitant price tag in New York City. Well all of my angst was put to ease when I discovered Habana Tapas, newly opened in the southern “Slope” of Brooklyn.

Normally when I hear Cuban food served tapas style, I run the other way, assuming it can’t possibly be authentic as that is not how this cuisine is consumed. By the pound, yes. On a tiny plate, no. But Habana Tapas changed my mind, and I will run to their door again and again.

Outdoor Back Patio

Interior from Entrance
Cuban owner Karina Barro (Brooklyn-native) shared my desire for an authentic and affordable Cuban restaurant, and opened this cozy spot with her Italian husband Pietro Sepe on August 2nd. The yellow-walled 36-seat space invited us in with Cuban beats and a free glass of fruity fresh sangria (until they get their liquor license). My discerning Cuban-trained palate was ready to test her claim of authenticity - and for the most part, they were spot-on.

Sangria

Plenty of  sangria to go around
The only missteps really came with a vocabulary mixup, listing what were still delicious platanos maduros (fried ripe sweet plantains) as “fufu de platano,” ($3) which is really a soft savory mash of unripe plantains. Also upon ordering the “mariquitas,” ($6) expecting the thin crispy sliced plantain chips, we instead received bland rounds of plantain cut uncharacteristically thick with a too-soft center. They were served with an unbelievable black-bean dip, which was perfectly pasty and of which we most certainly ordered an extra side.

"Fufu de Platano" (but really Platanos Maduros)

"Mariquitas" with Black Bean Dip

Avocado Salad
The avocado salad ($8) with watercress and a lovely lemon dressing provided a fresh start, and the ropa vieja (shredded stewed beef) empanadillas ($8 for 2) hit the mark with savory spices and flaky texture. (So much so, I wish it was offered as its own dish, sans the pastry.) The avocado empanada and the sweet guava and cheese emapanda (better for dessert) did not have that “wow” factor but still were an enjoyable crunch.

Empanadas


Tostones

The true test of authenticity came with the tostones ($3), which nary a Hispanic restaurant can seem to get right. These passed with flying colors. Cut and mashed into substantially thick disks and twice-fried, they rendered the hard-to-achieve threshold of a crispy exterior that gives way to the appropriately mushy center. (Definitely doubled up on these.) Gooey centers were also welcomed with the croqueta poppers ($8 for 3), gussied up with mushroom filling and truffle oil.

Mushroom Croquetas

Other order multiples were the amazing roasted pork “baby pernil” ($13) that tore into succulent garlicky mojo-drenched shreds, and the also garlicky pan-fried shrimp ($8) that had a surprising depth of flavor akin to a pesto, but supremely better.  And I did not mind that the “chorizo Espanol” ($8) was certainly more Spanish than Cuban, as the sliced sausage rounds bathing in oily marinade with pillowy potato cubes went down deliciously all the same.

Pernil with Platanos Maduros

Shrimp with Mojo Verde

Chorizo Espanol


And as if we could not have our fill of meat, I’m thankful we did not leave the marinated “mini steak” ($8) out of our spread. A tapas plating twist on a classic Cuban Palomilla steak, it was cut into thin strips for easy sharing with the requisite softened onions and peppers and that unmistakable chimichurri sauce. It’s all about the marinade and this meat had it. 

Mini Steak Encebollo

To add sweet to the savory, we tied up with a perfect palate cleanser: coconut ice cream ($3.50) served in its shell with a generous stem of fresh mint leaves. There are no words to describe how creamy yet light this was. And I will certainly order the fruity mamey flavor next time.

Coconut Ice Cream

I sing the praises of Habana Tapas not only for their warm welcome and homespun atmosphere, but for finally offering die-hard Cuban-food enthusiasts its authentic flavors at a price worth more than you could bargain for. Let us celebrate; the search is over.