Havana Bar & Grill, 3701 S Cooper St, Ste. 147, Arlington. 682-323-5697. 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-2am Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
Before Havana Bar & Grill opened its modest doors in a South Arlington strip mall just a couple of months back, a web search for Cuban food in Tarrant County was likely to produce nothing more inspired than a Cuban press sandwich at Jason’s Deli. There’s no knocking a good Cuban press wherever it turns up, but the cuisine of the enigmatic island nation deserves broader representation in Tarrant County. Havana Bar & Grill has taken on a consulate role, showcasing classic dishes in an atmosphere of warmth and authenticity.
Not that the place is without its quirks – the storefront location is awash in charmless florescent lighting that illuminates, among the expected photos of 1950s roadsters along Calle Línea, a warped poster of Al Pacino’s Scarface that is twice the size of God. Still, the service is friendly, the linens are clean, and the smells wafting from the kitchen are mesmerizing.
For Texans not familiar with the food of Cuba, the first lesson is that, though some words will seem familiar, Cuban food has nothing to do with Mexico. And even less to do with Tex-Mex. Instead, a blend of Spanish and Caribbean flavors, refined through the resourcefulness of poverty, give the cuisine a unique profile. The menu at Havana reflects a diversity of influences: sturdy tapas, delicate seafood, charbroiled meats served with moro (rice and black beans), and a hearty mix of black beans and rice.
My guest and I had braved distinctly non-Cuban weather to venture out to Havana on a recent Saturday evening, and we found the place nearly packed. It seems word is getting around quickly, and the young staff, smiling all the while, struggled a bit with the crowd. Popularity is a good problem to have.
As the windows steamed and the strains of Ibrahim Ferrer floated over the clinking of dishes, we settled in to a trio of tapas.
The empanadas of spinach and Manchego cheese were tiny hand-pies – about three bites each – with a cracker-thin crust. The spinach filling was so fresh that it crunched around the melted Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with a flavor not unlike an aged Monterrey Jack.
A dish of grilled chorizo with peppers and onions was flanked by rounds of toasted teleras bread, perfect for mopping up the golden fat left behind. The pork sausage was Spanish style, flavored with garlic and paprika, packing just enough heat to tingle the back of the palate.
Mariquitas de platano verde were long chips of fried green plantains, starchy and crisp, served in a basket with sea salt. Ramekins of lime vinaigrette and a garlicky crema were perched alongside.
The tapas could have kept us busy for a while, but our entrées arrived close on their heels.
My guest had been nursing a hankering for picadillo, a dish of spiced ground beef stewed with potatoes, raisins, almonds, and green olives. The combination produced a perfume that caused tables nearby to crane their necks with curiosity. It wasn’t the most beautiful dish we ordered, but it was the one we were thinking about the next day.
I ordered a lime-marinated breast of chicken, flame-broiled with a brilliant, bitter char on the edges. The texture of the bird was a bit unyielding, but the flavor rewarded the effort. A bit of undressed green salad and a mound of moro shared the plate.
Stuffed to the gills, my guest and I reflected on all the little charms of a new restaurant caught unprepared by its own success: the absence of salt and pepper shakers, a mixture of cloth and paper napkins, no cream for the coffee we sipped after dinner. As Pacino leered over the dining room lasciviously, we decided it would take a lot more than these imminently correctable flubs to keep us from making a return visit.
Havana Bar & Grill
Spinach Manchego empanadas $8
Plantain chips $6
Chorizo al Jerez $8
Picadillo de carne $11
Grilled chicken $5