Hoboken’s Havana Café and Lounge fills patrons’ bellies with old-fashioned, passed-through-the-generations Cuban fare “like Grandma used to make,” manager Alan Fox said.
Well, sure, if Grandma lived in a hip and trendy Soho apartment and regularly hosted Latin DJs and local Cuban bands.
In a gastronomic era marked by the tendency toward fusion food plagued with multi-flavored “foams” and “essences” and decidedly un-Grandma-like culinary innovations such as garlic ice cream and edible menus, this Newark Street restaurant serves up the sort of cuisine that is, quite frankly, refreshingly straightforward.
And the mojitos – Dios mio, the mojitos – come in 12 creative flavors that are rotated regularly and set to multiply for the summer season for the bargain price of $8. Anyone who’s ever made a mojito, particularly one with additional ingredients like the bar’s basil coconut version, knows that the labor alone warrants a higher price.
Hoboken’s Havana Café and Lounge fills patrons’ bellies with old-fashioned, passed-through-the-generations Cuban fare ‘like Grandma used to make.’
Havana meets Hoboken
Simply because the recipes were brought from Cuban generations past to Hoboken by the Becerra family doesn’t mean that Havana Café and Lounge itself is not cutting-edge. The décor seamlessly mingles old world charm over top a clean, sleek, modern backdrop with commissioned shadowbox artwork lining the main dining room walls. One contains stacks of canned Goya products, and upon further inspection diners will notice that the artist changed one of the can’s brand names from “GOYA” to “YOGA” – “because Hoboken is so health conscious,” Fox explained.
Other boxes boast collages created with beans Fox finds essential to Cuban culture (coffee, black, and jelly), and four large portraits are tastefully hung around the restaurant. Artist Rachel Marino blacked out large square pieces of plywood with paint and then delicately scratched in the faces of Celia Cruz, Desi Arnez, Carmen Miranda, and Ernest Hemingway with a sander.
Architect Rob Feinstein gave the restaurant’s black, white, and silver façade a minimalist and inviting feel as the backdrop for those who wish to dine al fresco in the warmer weather, sangria in hand, as the people go by.
In addition to a sizeable main dining room (whose chairs and tables can be rearranged in the evenings for dancing purposes), Havana Café and Lounge has a separate bar and lounge area with a private booth beneath a large stainless steel sailfish with the Cuban provinces etched in black.
The bright white bar, bedecked weekly with fresh floral arrangements, sits across from custom-made couches that evoke the rococo style of old Havana, and are covered in plastic for two reasons. First, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the plastic-covered furniture one might find in Grandma’s house; and second, for the more practical reason that the couches’ fabric was hand-woven with yarn by a local artisan.
Comida y bebida (food and drink)
Chef Pedro Cano, who has been cooking American and Spanish cuisine for 10 years, is in charge of recreating the Becerra family recipes for hungry guests. He says the secret is in the sofrito – an aromatic tomato and chopped vegetable flavor base used frequently in Latin cooking – and Cano prepares his expertly.
Any diner must insist on sampling the house mojo (pronounced mo-ho), which is a garlic sauce commonly found alongside Cuban dishes. Some can be overwhelming in their garlicky-ness, but Cano’s is the right balance of piquant and herby and ethereally elevates the $5 appetizer of mashed, fried green plantains called tostones to new heights. Think ketchup and fries on tasty Cuban steroids, and you’ve got it.
“It’s the best I’ve ever had,” bartender Orlando Castilla crooned, “although you may not want to kiss anyone for a few hours, unless you both eat it.” This is the mark of a good mojo.
The menu offers an even fancier version of the plantains in $7 tostones rellenos form, which is the crispy signature app stuffed with – wait for it – a bit of the hearty sofrito mixed with tender miniature shrimp. And for diners who wish to stuff themselves with stuffed things, there’s the bargain $3 papa rellena, which supplies the hungry with a crispy fried cut-in-half ball of airy mashed potatoes full of seasoned ground beef.
“They go perfectly with our house hot sauce,” Castilla explained as he brought out a small vessel of chipotle-based sauce that packs a smoky, decent punch, but does not overwhelm the subtle flavors of the food.
The telltale sign of a well-cooked meal, foodies say, is when the salt and pepper sit untouched on the table, and at Havana Café and Lounge, particularly with all of the expertly prepared sauce accompaniments, this is the case. For lunch, dinner, and brunch, they offer set menu items, but daily specials rotate seasonally and according to taste.
Cano recommends the $15 dinner lechon asado as an entree, which is shredded, marinated, roast suckling pig, and a typical Cuban dish. What has proven to be most popular, both Castilla and Fox agreed, is the churrasco.
For those who’ve never known the sizzling, dripping-with-juiciness, flank steak companion of sautéed onions and a chimichurri (garlic herb) sauce, que Dios le ayude (may God help you). And for this $21 iron platter of love, the churrasco virgin no longer has an excuse.
While Cuban cuisine tends to be meat-heavy, Fox explained, there are ample alternatives for the flesh un-inclined. Cano whips up a variety of salads such as the $5 ensalada de la casa (house salad) and several fishes like the $19 grilled salmon and the $19 Havana classic pargo frito: fried whole Florida red snapper that practically transports one seaside.
For dessert, the $5 house made flan is a classic must, and presented artfully to please both eye and tummy.
And what would food be without beverage? In addition to the mélange of mojitos (stay tuned for the upcoming espresso and ginger varieties, Castilla said), Havana Café and Lounge offers a full bar and a Latin-focused variety of red and white wines hand picked by Fox and house sommelier Paola Congote.
The crisp, minerally Argentinian Opala Vinho Verde runs $6 a glass, and a plethora of sangrias of the red, white, and sparkling varieties tantalizingly await the thirsty patron. Oh, and don’t forget half-price Mojito Mondays, sure to increase Tuesday morning productivity and please bosses everywhere.
Hours, entertainment, website
Havana Café and Lounge offers live Latin Cuban jazz Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Fridays, too, beginning soon. Friday and Saturday nights at 11 p.m., after the bar closes, Latin DJs move the tables, dim the lights, and allow those looking for late night salsa dancing to take a turn across the floor.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch Monday through Friday, and for dinner from Sunday through Wednesday until 10 p.m., and from Thursday through Saturday until 11 p.m. Brunch runs Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the menu boasts the same sort of tasty authentic Cuban fare (plus a few Havana-infused egg and pancake dishes) as the regular menus.
Havana Café and Lounge is located at 32 Newark St. in Hoboken and can be reached at (201) 216-1766. Their website may be found at www.havanacafelounge.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org