Restaurant News & Reviews

Cuban cafeteria needs tweaking

Robert Cardoso thinks big. To decorate Havana Grill, which he opened in June with his wife Aleida, Cardoso didn't stop at the usual travel posters and cigar ads. He trucked in live palm trees from Miami, where the Cuban native owned a restaurant before relocating to Cary. Little palm trees, big palm trees -- some as tall as 15 feet -- and even a couple of fiber optic palm trees, scattered around the restaurant's patio, sway to a piped-in salsa beat to set a suitably tropical mood.

Cardoso thinks big when it comes to the menu, too. Havana Grill's offerings run to more than 50 listings, not counting the breakfast and kids menus. The beverage list alone offers some three dozen choices, from café Cubano to house-made sangria to Cuban sodas to milkshakes in flavors such as mango, papaya and mamey, a tropical melon with an exotic honeyed pumpkin flavor.

To help him transform this ambitious menu into reality, Cardoso recruited his uncle Nicasio "Nick" Amador as chef. It's a wise choice, as Amador is intimately familiar with the family's traditional recipes, and has mastered them by working most of his adult life in restaurants in Cuba and Miami.

The decision to serve this Cuban bonanza primarily cafeteria-style is, I'm afraid, not so wise. Granted, the assembly-line approach reduces costs, and the savings are passed along in the form of an entrée with two sides that will set you back just eight bucks or so. It speeds up service, too -- undeniably an attraction for many at lunchtime. But in the evening, I for one am willing to pay a little more and wait a little longer for food that comes directly from the kitchen to my table.

Some dishes, of course, weather the steam table better than others. Ropa vieja, for one, which by definition is a dish of lean beef simmered so long in a tomato-based criollo sauce that it falls apart in succulent shreds, is none the worse for wear after an extra hour or so over low heat. Same goes for arroz con pollo, the classic Cuban dish of chicken and yellow rice, as long as its steam table sojourn hasn't been too long.

On the other hand, even though Cardoso goes to the trouble of procuring sour orange juice to make an authentic mojo marinade for lechon asado, it isn't enough to prevent the roasted pork from drying out. Cuban corn and pork tamales are expertly made, each one carefully wrapped in a fresh corn husk and tied with kitchen twine. After swimming for an indeterminate length of time in a liquid-filled pan on a steam table, however, they're bland and soggy. And if ham croquetas were crisp when they came out of the fryer, they're not after suffering the indignities of the heat lamp.

Surely I'm not the only one who would prefer crispy croquetas and juicy lechon asado, though I'd be hard-pressed to prove it based on the overwhelming majority of diners who ordered from the cafeteria selection both times I visited. I can only guess that many aren't aware of the à la carte option, which you wouldn't know existed unless you ask or you happen to notice the stack of menus by the entrance. Though the staff is as friendly as you'd expect it to be at a small family-owned restaurant, I never heard anyone mention an à la carte option during either of my visits.

That's too bad, because those who limit themselves to the cafeteria selection -- which accounts for just a fraction of Havana Grill's offering -- will likely never taste the caramelized sweetness of fried ripe plantains as they ought to taste, straight from the fryer. Or properly crisp tostones, or shrimp in garlic sauce, still hot from the sauté pan.

To improve the odds that customers experience Havana Grill at its best, Cardoso might consider emphasizing the à la carte option. Better still, he might do away with the cafeteria line for dinner service. Now, that would be thinking big.