The sound of mojitos and caipirinhas clinking fades into the rhythm of salsa and merengue tunes at Havana Alma de Cuba every night. At the heart of the restaurant, the kitchen prepares a rich spread of Cuban, Latin, and Spanish dishes rated very good to excellent by Zagat and recommended by New York Magazine. Chef Gerardo Tlapa marinates fresh fish in citrus juices to create daily ceviche specials and prepares traditional entrees by braising shredded skirt steak in tomato and covering pork chops with a rich chorizo-tomatillo sauce. Flickering votive candles and a wall-size mural of Cuban streets and musicians playing conga drums create a lively atmosphere in the dining room. Beyond the bustle inside sits an outdoor patio with seating for private events including wedding rehearsals and staring contests.
Live music from Son, Mambo and Rumba serenades guests Thursday–Saturday nights. Tuesday and Wednesday nights bring a different sort of show. Special guest Jose Martinez crafts complimentary cigars for each diner, expertly rolling each one before their eyes. Martinez draws on 30 years of experience that began with his training in the Dominican Republic and continues in his current position as a cigar maker at La Rosa Cubana, which Ciagar Aficionado calls "the old grand dame of New York's mini cigar factories."
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.
With its simple blend of well-made Cuban cuisine and candlelit ambiance, Cafe Cortadito captures the Hemingway-esque romance of pre-revolution Havana. Clad in guayabera shirts, waitstaff bustle among the wooden bar, open kitchen counter, and candlelit tables. They load tables with classic dishes, such as braised oxtail in a red wine and tomato stew, or the picadillo cua cua—ground sirloin steak in a sweet stir fry of veggies, raisins, and olives, crowned with a golden fried egg. Tying everything together is a musical score that fits the mood. Tunes from the Buena Vista Social Club, and occasionally members of the popular group, burst out of the speakers. New York magazine says Café Cortadito has the "unpretentious, hospitable aura of a home kitchen, with the chef toiling away behind the counter and his wife greeting guests and taking orders."
With brunch, lunch, and dinner menus revealing a teeming variety of Spanish and Latin influences, Agozar! conceives classic Cuban favorites alongside inventive and unusual flavors in a vibrant bistro setting. Traditional dishes, such as the seafood-suffused paella marinera ($21), celebrate the best of Cuban cooking without the hassle of eating an entire bag of confetti. Palates will proclaim their undying affections for envelope-pushing entrees, such as the ginger-glazed salmon and crab-fried rice in the Chino-Cubano ($17). Agozar! also features many vegetarian options, a tasty dessert menu, and a host of delicious wines and other drinks among interior hues of bright orange and saffron yellow, wood-paneled floors, and lively Cuban artwork.
A visit to the Habana Room quickly warms diners up with the mysterious but convivial spirit of Cuban culture, arts, music, and delectable cuisine. Connoisseurs can treat themselves to the country's exotic flavors without having to fly their tongues through Canada with Chef Alex Garcia’s menu, which kicks off with piquant appetizers such as the spicy chorizo al vino (Spanish sausage in a Rioja wine reduction; $9). Stir up the senses with the ropa vieja—a traditional shredded-beef stew blended with caramelized onions and peppers ($16)—and chase it with a classically concocted mojito ($9) or homemade sangria, infused with tropical juices and a dash of vanilla and cinnamon ($9). Office refugees seeking an hour's asylum, meanwhile, can drop in for the lighter lunch menu and talk shop over the Cuban TBLT, a sandwich packed with ham croquettes and roasted turkey breast ($11). Habana Room's breakfast and brunch entrees treat sleepy mouths to the sensory equivalent of a swallowed alarm clock with the picadillo dish, which mingles savory beef, sweet plantain hash, and two eggs, then tops it all off with green chili sauce ($15).
The story of Sophie's Cuban Cuisine is not the story of a family of Cuban restaurateurs passing down recipes between generations. The road to the first Sophie's location and the ones that followed was longer and more unpredictable than that. Its founders—the Luna family—arrived in New York from Lima, Peru, and started out scratching together capital by selling Peruvian food from carts at New York City soccer fields. At the time, however, their native cuisine might have seemed a little too out of the ordinary for the city's palate, so the Lunas began to do some research: what kind of menu could form the ideal home for their love of hearty portions and fresh ingredients?
With the help of Havana-trained chef Eduardo Morgado, they found the answer. The Cuban recipes at the spot they opened up were wildly popular. Their reputation grew with each roast-pork-and-ham sandwich served, and by 2001 they were operating four different Sophie's locations. But then came September 11, which demolished two outposts near the World Trade Center. A third was gobbled up by a landlord who bought them out. In the face of these setbacks, the Lunas did what they'd always done: roll up their sleeves and keep working. Today, they've planted the seeds for a franchise they expect to populate the entire East Coast with the aroma of sizzling plantains.
Their Cuban sandwich is still a customer favorite, as are pernil sandwiches with roast pork, sweet plantains, and Sophie's signature green sauce (also available bottled, although the exact recipe is kept secret, hidden at the bottom of an enormous vat of oxtail stew). In a 2008 New York Times review, Pete Wells accordingly called Sophie's a destination for "authentic sandwich bliss," and for piquant roast turkey "worth eating far, far more often than once a year." Empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or guavas often precede entrees of chicken fricassee or oxtail stew. The batidos (milkshakes) conclude meals on a relatively healthy note, blended from tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, and passion fruit.