(516) 739-7900, Garden City
And now there are three. Until recently there has been only one Cuban restaurant in each of the Island’s two counties. Though still underrepresented, that changed in early December when Havana Central came roaring into Roosevelt Field Mall outfitted with an authentic island vibe and festive environment. The expansive, 13,000+ square foot, standalone Havana Central, with its overhead fans, massive plants casting shadows on its high ceilings, Cholula hot sauce on every table, waitresses each wearing a tropical flower in her hair and salsa music at a civilized level, looks like Havana via Miami’s South Beach.
Once inside the restaurant’s splashy, flashy exterior, diners are instantly greeted by a warm, well-trained waitstaff. Throughout the meal they know who ordered each dish every time. As flamboyant as the surroundings are, they have nothing on the elaborate tableside production involved in the serving of sangria ($40). A pitcher filled with fresh citrus fruits is encircled by shot glasses filled with multi colored ingredients like Hennessy, passion fruit purée, blackberry purée, agave, Grand Marnier and orange and pineapple juice, all topped off with a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cuban food is earthy, not fancy. Similar to other crossroads like Sicily and Thailand, many diverse influences (Caribbean, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and African) are fused into the comfort-style dishes most Cubans eat. Much of it (empanadas, tamales, ceviche, tacos, plantains, mofongo, flan, tres leches, churros, etc.) is available at many other Caribbean and south of the border spots. The Cuban versions are often either sautéed or slowly cooked over a low flame until they are fall-from-the-bone tender. Spices common to Cuban cuisine are garlic, oregano, cumin and sofrito (garlic, ground pepper, oregano, onion and green pepper fried in olive oil). All are well represented at Havana Central.
The corn on the cob ($5), is a cob cut into four mini pieces coated with an inspired marriage of those spices infused into melted cheese. The rich, thick, puréed black bean soup ($5.50) is smooth and vibrantly flavored. Three guava pulled pork taquitos ($9.95) with mango coleslaw are a Latino version of a familiar southern specialty, while a croquetas ($7.95) starter is the usual meat-stuffed breaded pastry.
A half rack of guava-glazed baby back pork ribs ($16 for half rack, full rack $24) marinated in adobo was tasty and tender but not that different than ribs commonly available. Pineapple chicken ($15.50) or chicken breast marinated in pineapple purée, garlic and olive oil passed muster without being particularly exciting. Better was a roast pork mofongo ($15.50) with garlic and pork mashed plantains that delivered pleasing heft. The numero uno entrée was vaca frita ($19.50), a mountain of shredded beef that had been marinated in lime, peppers and garlic and is laced with crunchy onions in a dish sautéed into a crispy delight.
The three-tier dessert sampler ($14) of three warm churros, an ethereal flan and a dense delicious tres leches cake is an appropriate way to say adios to Havana Central.
Photos by Stephen Lang