Habana's Cuban cuisine evokes fond memories of-New Jersey?
Union City, N.J., was built on the backs of its big Cuban population, lured there after World War II by lots of labor opportunities in the textile industry. The jobs sucked and paid squat, but they did bolster the city's tax base, and they eventually led to the establishment of core businesses, like restaurants. The problem is that some pockets of Union City don't exactly inspire the prospect of personal safety. So when Leslie, my girlfriend of 20 years ago, enticed me into a Cuban hole-in-the-wall venue for lunch in one such downtown neighborhood, I was decidedly unimpressed with the outlook for that part of the afternoon.
That meal featured the best food I've ever eaten in my rotten, stinky, pathetic little excuse for a life.
Except for those that accommodate the picture hangers, Habana doesn't have any holes in the wall. It trades 'em for some eminently fine examples of the best cuisine in the history of the universe. Cuban food is unassuming, evocative and totally wonderful. Like Leslie and the rest of the most beautiful women on earth, it gives you just enough of itself to inspire your next level of desire. With its stately brown décor, partitioned "cigar garden" smoking area, full Cantina Tropicana bar and one Stephanie's excellent service, Habana is a singular locale in which to act on that desire. And it's as near as the La Mesa side of University Avenue.
The thing about Cuban is that, contrary to popular supposition, it's absolutely anything but spicy. There's a spice factor, to be sure, but it gently and ingeniously enhances the taste without competing with it (in fact, salsa is served with Cuban meals more as a condiment, like salt and pepper, than as a staple). At $14.95, the Pescado Habanero provides an excellent and affordable case in point. This pan-grilled white fish, served with white potatoes and your pick of rice, beans or yams (two choices if you like), is topped with homemade marinero sauce-and as with lots of Cuban, the sauce makes the meal. Its perfect tomato base seamlessly anchors the taste of the fish and your side orders, which in this case probably ought to be the rice and beans. The yams, on the other hand, almost double as your dessert amid their sweetness. Chicken, pork, beef and vegetarian entrées are also available, as are salads, sandwiches, à la carte entries and meals designed for kids.
The appetizers range from $3.95 to a steep $12.50 and include something called Yuca Frita-fried cassava root, which is something like a breadstick and is great when dipped in garlic sauce. But while this delicacy underscores Stephanie's kindly pleasantries, the drone of reggae over the speakers adds nothing to the total experience. It sounds packaged and branded, which is not at all the way the food is prepared or presented.
Union City is actually a pretty cool and eclectic place, or at least it was in the mid '80s. For starters, it's a hop and a skip from one of the greatest cities in the world. And it had that astoundingly good Cuban place where Leslie brazenly cast my gustatory virginity to the curb. I owe her a certain level of homage for that (and for several other things, in fact). With my introduction to Habana, I've found an ideal place to pay it.
Entrées range from $9.95 to $16.95. Lunch and dinner are served 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 3 to 9 p.m. Sundays. The restaurant features an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
7777 University Ave.,