17 Prince St
(between Elizabeth St & Mott St)
New York, NY 10012
This Cuban/Mexican spot has been on my To Do list for quite some time now, and I finally managed to snag a table Friday night with fellow blogger Joanne from Eats Well With Others (PS she is an awesome dinner companion!). The restaurant is tiny, and fortunately has a To Go outlet next door with more room for diners unwilling to wait for a table (and oh do they wait!). Joanne and I were seated elbow-to-elbow with another couple of diners at the table next to us. To our other side, the door. Hoards of wannabe-diners filled in the gaps, waiting for tables to become free, far too cold to wait outside. They don't accept reservations, so if you come to Cafe Habana after 7pm, expect to wait. Period. Small, cramped tables are "cozy." That's fine. It's part of the charm. The walls feature painted palms, while the music is a loud eclectic mix containing everything from pop songs to rap (I squealed when Mo Money Mo Problems by the Notorious B.I.G. came on, reminding me of the random rap phase I went through in the mid-90's). It's definitely a loud and boisterous atmosphere, topped off with the super dim and warm yellow lighting that regardless of my photo editing efforts, made all my pictures look yellow (they looked red before I edited them!). No amount of fixing the white balance will improve it enough, so please forgive the photos :)
We started with a round of mojitos (duh) and the famous grilled Mexican-style corn. It was recently featured on Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate (yeah yeah, you've heard it before). It's insanely popular. Of course going into it I thought, it's just corn. It's not even in season! Well, trust me when I tell you, this corn deserves its own food group, a pedestal on which to stand. It's everything corn on the cob should be. It's smoky, salty, sweet, and spicy, with a touch of acid. Hot grilled corn cobs are slathered with a mayo/sour cream mixture, then rolled in grated Cotija cheese, topped with hot chili powder, and finally a wedge of lime for a do-it-yourself final touch. It's gooey, cheesy, spicy, get-stuck-in-your-teeth awesome, served with a side of individually wrapped toothpicks. You'll need them!
|Grilled Mexican-Style Corn (2 per order) $4.25|
|Mojitos $9 each|
After noshing on the incredible corn, our entrées arrived. Joanne decided to try the vegetarian tacos, which contained nopales (cactus), onion and queso fresco with a side of salsa verde to top with. The salsa was much needed to spice up the tacos, which were overall very enjoyable. The nopales almost reminded us of bell peppers in their texture and flavor. On the side were black beans, which were very flavorful, and rice which was unfortunately a bit bland. Definitely a lot of food for under $10!
|Vegetarian Tacos - Nopales, Onion and Queso Fresco with Salsa Verde, Black Beans, and Rice $8.95|
I had to get the Cuban sandwich, which was voted best in NYC (I'm not sure by whom, though). It was different than other Cubans in that instead of featuring sliced pork loin, it had roast pulled pork, which made the sandwich insanely juicy! It also had the traditional ham, Swiss cheese and pickles on pressed Parisi's bread (from Little Italy, right down the street), and was served with hand-cut French fries. Like I said, this sandwich was incredibly juicy because of the roast pulled pork, and the other components balanced out the sandwich well. Instead of the traditional mustard, it contained chipotle mayonnaise, giving it a more Mexican twist (the original Cafe Habana opened in 1952 in Mexico City and still exists). I thought the pickles were too mild, and far less acidic than I'd usually prefer. I expect to taste that pickle in each bite, and that layer of flavor was lacking for me, but then again this isn't an entirely traditional Cubano. The bread was crisp on the outside and chewy inside, a great vessel for this sandwich. Overall, I really enjoyed the sandwich and polished off the entire thing, but unfortunately there was one fairly large hunk of fat amidst the pulled pork chunks, which I had to remove myself. It may not have bothered other people, and I'm sure it was an oversight, but it definitely wasn't very pleasant to me (and Joanne agreed). I don't like surprises like that in my sandwich, haha. Would I call this the best Cuban sandwich in NYC? I don't know, I haven't had other Cuban sandwiches in NYC, but I loved how juicy it was, unlike any other I've had before. It's definitely in a league of its own in that regard, and I give Cafe Habana huge props for making the juiciest Cuban sandwich I've ever had, albeit slightly untraditional :)
|Cuban Sandwich - Roast Pork, Ham, Swiss Cheese, and Pickles on Pressed Parisi's Bread, with Hand-Cut Fries $9.75|
|Inside the Sandwich|
I originally wanted to swap out my fries for the sweet plantains, but was told there would be an additional charge of $2 or so. Considering the plantains only cost $3.25 as a side order, that seemed like a ripoff. We decided to just get them to share, in addition to our meals. First of all, the fries that were included with my sandwich were actually really good! They had a great crunch on the outside and were piping hot and fluffy inside. Definitely not disappointing! I expected the sweet plantains to be fried, as most sides of plantains have been in my life, but when these arrived they were more charred around the edges and were not sitting a pool of residual oil. These babies were roasted! I really enjoyed not having that additional oil slick in my mouth with each bite of hot, sweet plantain (and the guilt too), and the roasting had imparted its own flavor to them.
|Sweet Plantains $3.25|
Even though the restaurant was crowded and loud, and our food wasn't absolutely perfect (hey, this isn't Le Bernardin... I think a little imperfection is acceptable, don't you?), we both had a wonderful time here, and I know that I personally would love to come back. Come early so you don't have to wait as long, and definitely order the corn! I would happily order the same items I had all over again, and yet there were several other options that had me drooling, like the variety of enchiladas (I'm a sucker for those) and the fish tacos (huuuuuge addict). I have a feeling I'll be back...