For more than 20 years, Havana NY has served as an outpost of Cuba in Midtown. The menu bursts with Cuban and Caribbean ingredients such as oxtail, creole spices, tropical fruit, yellow rice, and plantains. In a 2000 New York Times review, Eric Asimov praised the "tasty, inexpensive food in pleasant surroundings," including fish that was "moist and subtly flavored, not the sort of dish that would succeed in an assembly-line kitchen." In addition to tilapia, catfish, and salmon, there is shrimp in tequila-mango sauce, marinated pork, grilled chicken, and ropa vieja, shredded beef simmered in creole sauce. Chefs labor over creative plate presentations, making unexpectedly pretty artwork from a cuisine known for its love of fried and stewed foods. Cuban musicians and dancers parade across paintings on the walls—and, sometimes, through the restaurant during live salsa performances. In the absence of special entertainment, low lighting, exposed brick walls, and candle-topped tables create a ruggedly romantic atmosphere that concentrates diners' attention on the food, the fruity margaritas, and their dining companions, or the empanadas they drew little guacamole faces on.
In 2002, entrepreneur Jeremy Merrin teamed with fellow restaurant mogul Arlene Spiegel and head chef Stanley Licairac to establish Havana Central, a family-friendly enterprise based on lively Latin music and the rich flavors of Cuban cuisine. The food of Cuba draws from disparate influences across the globe⎯Spanish, French, African, Chinese, and indigenous cultures⎯manifesting into tender skirt-steak ropa vieja, empanadas stuffed with savory meats and goat cheese, and salmon, chicken, and shrimp marinated in tangy citrus juices.
Though the restaurant's leafy palms and tropical cocktails hint at the freewheeling good times of 1950s Havana, the staff pairs their joie de vivre with social responsibility, specifically by donating to local charities and taking on numerous green initiatives. As guests sip mojitos and sangria and sup upon slow-roasted meats and chicken sofrito, a lineup of live entertainment keeps feet moving in rhythm. Interactive events include salsa-dance lessons, charanga bands, and reenactments of the charge up San Juan Hill.
New York food critics seem to have fallen in love with Calle Ocho—or at least in lust. Hai Rubenstein of New York magazine described the eatery as "uncalculatingly sexy," and the same publication's William Grimes once referred to Chef Alex Garcia as "a very sexy chef"—speaking of his food, of course.
Although Calle Ocho's softly lit environs simmer with sunset-colored booths and glazed terra-cotta mosaics, it is the menu of Latin American-fusion plates that keeps things hot. Under the direction of Consulting Chef Garcia and Executive Chef Rodney Mitchell, the kitchen staff drizzles saffron-pineapple sauce over lobster empanadas and mixes red snapper and thai chili into ceviche to create sharable plates for two people stuck in the same large sweater. For entrees, they top braised pork shank with pickled jalapeños and pair spice-rubbed salmon with lobster mash and mango chutney. Weekend brunches showcase such Latin-inspired plates as Costa Rican tacos with eggs and chorizo and Cuban-style burgers with chipotle ketchup.
The quarters are cramped inside Café Habana, a tiny Cuban eatery off Elizabeth Street. But the wait to snatch a seat is worth it, declared New York Magazine, thanks to perfectly seasoned pork, sautéed chicken, and a delightful cuban sandwich. The ultimate messy crowd pleaser, the Mexican-style grilled corn delivers a “gooey mixture of fresh corn topped with chili powder, melted cheese and lime.” And if that’s not enough, fans of Lenny Kravitz will recognize the dive for its star turn in his music video, “Again.”
“The big front windows were opened to the warm breezes, and as we watched the neighborhood passing by, listening to the shouts of schoolchildren, high school flirtations in Spanglish and other lively sounds of the city, we agreed that we could not possibly have anything better to do at that moment than sit there.” So wrote Eric Asimov in a 2004 New York Times review of Cafecito, which, in addition to the ambiance, praised the “very good” food, including a “fine, traditional Cubano sandwich.” Even when the windows are closed, the petite double storefront maintains a sunny feel with walls of buttercup yellow and warm raw brick hung with mirrors and art in exuberantly oversize frames. On one side sits a long counter where baristas steam café con latte and muddle mint for mojitos. On the other side, diners dig into shrimp with garlic and citrus or the Cuban-style stew of pulled flank steak and peppers known as ropa vieja, named after the Spanish phrase for “old clothes” for the recommended attire for slurping without fear of spills.
Named after a classic Cuban love song, Guantanamera celebrates the culture and traditions of Old Havana, dishing up authentic cuisine, complimentary hand-rolled cigars, and live music. Homemade dishes such as pressed roast-pork sandwiches and yellow rice with shrimp share menu real estate with elegant entrees of braised oxtails with mashed plantains. Bartenders sweeten mojitos with sugar cane or prolonged exposure to greeting cards, and they pour more than 30 types of aged rum sourced from South America and the Caribbean.
On Friday and Saturday nights, cigar expert Juan de la Cruz enlists traditional tools to hand-roll Dominican tobacco inside thick, complimentary cigars, and patrons can hone their salsa, rumba, and cha-cha moves to live music Tuesday–Sunday at around 9 p.m. Inside the eatery, exposed-brick walls encroach on vibrant, hand-painted murals depicting idyllic Cuban scenes, such as dancers, musicians, and city streets. A parade of candles casts a gentle glow upon crisp white tablecloths, and rattan-covered ceiling fans make balloons lament their helium innards.