Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Restaurant 26: Havana-Chelsea

RESTAURANT: Havana-Chelsea Restaurant
LOCATION: 190 8th Avenue
DATE: May 21, 2005
FOOD: Cubano Grande (sandwich); Cuban Tamal; Split orders of White Rice with Black Beans and Fried Yellow Plantains.
PRICE: $15.00

Upon moving to the Financial District, I had my first meal in the area at Sophie’s. Sophie’s Cuban cuisine sent my mouth into flavor euphoria, so good I was ready to violate all terms of the trade embargo and sneak into the country on a random weekend getaway. I’ve wanted to go back ever since, but Sophie’s is only open while I’m at work on the Upper West Side, a near impossible journey for a lunch hour. Thus, after reading from many bloggers and food magazines that Havana-Chelsea serves some of the best Cuban food in the city, I decided to make a visit.

I went to Havana-Chelsea specifically for the Cubano, a sodium-laced monster of a pressed sandwich with roast pork, pickles, cheese, and ham. As I took my first delicious bite, I felt my blood pressure rising to all time heights, but didn’t care. The core of Havana-Chelsea’s Cubano is in its lay of pigs (obviously, that was awful, but I haven’t had a bad pun in a while). The roast pork was moist and soft, the thin slice of ham a distant cry from Subway’s processed mystery meat. As if the sandwich needed more salt, the “Sandwich Stacker”-style pickles enhanced the pork’s cured sultriness. In lieu of a sauce, the melted provolone provided enough liquidity to tie all the ingredients together. The sandwich would be better with slimmer slices of bread, as sometimes the pork and cheese get lost amidst the crusted exterior, but otherwise Havana-Chelsea’s Cubano is excellent.

What really shocked me however, was the Cuban tamal, a dish offered as both a side and entrĂ©e that I ordered at the end of the meal. Pork was once again a foundation component, but in the tamal, it took a backseat to the slightly sweet cornbread in which it was shrouded. Akin to the Mexican cornbread I grew up on at Anita’s (in Vienna, Virginia), Havana-Chelsea’s Tamal packed full kernels of corn and pulled pork in a bread more wet and sweet than Southern cornbread. Sweet peas surrounded the tamal like fallen leaves and a top the Tamal a pepper slice rested in a swath of red sweetness. The combination was as uniquely remarkable as a Republican graduate of Brown.

But my meal at Havana-Chelsea did have significant let downs. The black beans lacked seasoning of any kind. They were as bland and overcooked as the white rice which accompanied them, and I have to wonder if Havana-Chelsea does anything to these beans other then pour them directly from a can into a pot. Black beans are best when spicy, but even black pepper was absent from Havana-Chelsea’s. Havana-Chelsea’s fried plantains also paled in comparison to Mercadito’s and Sophie’s. They were overly oily and came in such huge chunks that the plantains were not cooked through evenly, leaving some parts soggy.

However, dwelling excessively on the failings of a restaurant’s side dishes is like reading all of Anna Karenina and then focusing only on a typo appearing on page 459. Considering that my knowledge of Cuban culture rests primarily on my college classes, movie depictions (such as the Godfather 2), “60 Minutes” profiles, Elian Gonzalez, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, to experience food that was authentically Cuban was eye-opening. Sophie’s cooking involved more heat (most wonderfully in the form of a green chile sauce present on every table), so I was disappointed that nothing I ordered at Havana-Chelsea was spicy in the least. I added hot sauce to nearly everything I ate and it augmented each of the dishes, but it wasn’t enough, and hot sauce dominates in a way an integrated spiciness does not.

Havana-Chelsea offers solid if somewhat plain Cuban food. I’m sure if I had the time or appetite to explore the menu more extensively, I’d end up finding nearly as many hidden gems (like the tamal) as there are U.S. led conspiracies against Fidel Castro. But based on a single impression, I prefer Sophie’s and as unbelievable as it is to say, I’ll be returning to the Financial District for Cuban before venturing to Chelsea again.

RATING: 6.9/10

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