On a Bronx street lined with Italian restaurants, one fa?ade stands out?the one with a streetside bar under a shady awning, and a dense gathering of exotic plants and excited diners. This fa?ade belongs to Havana Cafe, which the 2013 and 2014 Michelin Guide honored with a Bib Gourmand award recognizing the inspectors? favorites for good value. PIX-11 confirmed the restaurant's status as a neighborhood staple during a 2011 Bronx Restaurant Week profile, noting that it?s ?become famous fast for serving great food in a welcoming atmosphere.?
Smells of Cuban and Latin-American cooking spill out from an intimate dining room, and, in the kitchen, a custom brick oven burns through shovelfuls of bricks under the direction of Chef Alex Garcia. Chef Alex designs modern interpretations of classic dishes, resulting in cultural collisions such as brick-oven pizza topped with beef picadillo and piquillo peppers. Straightforward renditions of Latin flavors abound as well, in the form of adobo-rubbed shrimp, churrasco-style grilled steaks, and sides and sauces made with tropical produce such as plantains, mango, and yuca.
When cool weather forces the french doors closed, groups snuggle up with their mojitos in leather-cushioned chairs beneath brick pillars and exposed rafters. Behind plush red banquettes, murals commemorate a hazy Cuban past lined with shiny classic cars and balconies leaning convivially over narrow city streets.
Fresh vegetables, meats, and Latin spices help capture the home-cooked flavors of authentic Latin cuisine at Caridad Restaurant. A bilingual staff pairs traditional entrees such as roasted chicken and oxtail stew with Latin ingredients such as ripe avocados and flan freshly sapped from a tropical custard tree.
Zafra refers to the term harvesting sugarcane, which is one of the main ingredients in rum. And Zafra Cuban Restaurant knows rum, stocking its shelves with more than 300 different types of the liquor. Guests can drink rum mixed into mojitos and martinis, or sip the libation straight. While the rum selection is impressive, Zafra is also known for its cuisine, nabbing top honors from the OpenTable Diners? Choice award for Cuban food. Chefs tuck mango chicken into housemade empanadas and serve ceviche inside a coconut shell. Cuban entrees include guava-glazed salmon and grilled flank steak slathered in a chimichurri sauce. Another Cuban tradition occurs every Sunday night, when high-energy beats fill the restaurant and guests can spin and dip their way through salsa routines and games of tag.
Though its dining room is in the heart of Yonkers, La Bella Havana's food transports diners straight to Cuba with the chefs' homestyle Caribbean cooking. Drawing equal inspiration from the land and sea, hearty comfort foods include sauteed chorizo with fried plantain chips, empanadas with a variety of fillings, and massive servings of paella that the New York Times hailed as "the real deal: stuffed with seafood, chorizo and chicken, full of flavor and cooked to perfection." The drink menu similarly embraces its Cuban roots with hand-blended mojitos and other potent tropical cocktails.
But Cuba's presence inside the restaurant also goes beyond the edibles to its island-inspired decor. The walls give the appearance of rustic, exposed brickwork peeking through plaster and a glance upward yields ceiling fans and their distinctively leaf-shaped blades. Even the bar area is shaded by a thatched straw canopy, which shields the bartenders from the imported Cuban sunshine.
As lively Latin music plays, guests?including celebrities such as P. Diddy?sidle up to white-clothed tables to eat large portions of Sofrito Puerto Rican Cuisine?s authentic oxtail soup, fried green plantains, and skirt steak with chimichurri sauce. They can also visit the bar area, where bartenders make specialty cocktails out of fresh fruit in front of a blue-backlit bar. DJ sets and live music keep guests entertained every night of the week, and a strict dress code?no sneakers or hats?ensures that diners do not impersonate professional baseball players.
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.