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Jan 7, 2008 09:30 AM

Havana, Alameda -- report

My housemate and I decided to stroll down Park St. Saturday night and check out the new outpost of Havana. Caveat: I don't know anything about Cuban food, and I don't have any pre-conceived ideas about what various dishes "should" be like.

We strolled in a little after 7 pm and caught them in the middle of a rush. They don't take reservations for parties under 8, and I'd suggest they rethink that, as one thing reservations do is help pace the clientele, so you don't have people standing around waiting for tables at 7:00 and a half-empty restaurant at 8:30 (this is Alameda, after all, they roll up the sidewalks pretty early, even on Saturday). At any rate, the service definitely had problems that need to be ironed out (more later), and they clearly were disorganized (not too surprising for a restaurant that's only been open a couple of weeks, but considering that it's not their first location, I expected them to have a better grasp of the basics).

We had a round of drinks -- the mojito wasn't minty enough for me. For a restaurant that specializes in them, I would have expected better. It wasn't bad, just not as good as the surprisingly good mojitos at, of all places, Ching Hua down the street. When the Chinese restaurant serves better mojitos than the Cuban one, that's not a good sign!

When we were seated, we ordered a round of "tapas." The big pile of boniato garlic fries came with two dipping sauces: a (guava?) chipotle sauce (didn't taste guava, seemed like chipotle ketchup to me, but it was tasty), and chimichurri (needed more punch ... salt, acid, garlic, all three?). The shimp ceviche came with yucca chips that had apparently been impregnated with cayenne at some point -- although the shrimp were a little skimpy, it turned out to be a pretty good version of chips and salsa (one of my favorite foods), with the fresh, cool ceviche, crunchy chips and then cayenne after burn. I think, though, that next time I'll try the halibut ceviche, which looked very pretty in a martini glass.

For our entrees, we both went with fish. I had the grilled swordfish with romesco sauce, which came with sofrito rice and "seasonal vegetables." The swordfish was cut thin and thus was a little well-done for my taste -- but then, I guess I could have asked them to cook it medium rare. The romesco sauce was delicious, and the veggies turned out to be sauteed haricot vert, which were salty, oily, slightly charred and addictive. The rice was nothing special. I'm not much for beans, but from the way everyone was raving about the black bean soup, black beans might be the way to go on the sides. My housemate ordered what on the menu is plantain-crusted halibut with tomatillo-avocado salsa (they had actually subbed in blue-nosed bass). She seemed happy with it -- it did not appear to be overcooked.

For dessert, she had the flan, which was very good, and I had the raspberry and mango sorbets, which weren't all that good. I'd give the mango a B-minus but the raspberry had a flavor I couldn't put my finger on (I asked if there was something else in it, and the waiter said it was just raspberry), but that bumped it down to a C-minus (don't mess with my raspberry sorbet).

I thought the food was basically competent, but the service needs a lot of work. They didn't seem to have a system for taking names and then finding you when your table was ready, and the woman who took our initial drink order first combined our tab with the woman next to us, then gave us the wrong tab, and finally ended up not giving us a tab for the drinks at all. I would have felt a little more guilty about that if they hadn't charged me for a regular mojito when I ordered a virgin mojito with my meal. Then they slapped the check down before asking us if we wanted dessert, and we had to flag down a waiter to order dessert (our waitress having disappeared).

Overall, though, I enjoyed my meal and I will probably go back, maybe focussing more on the "tapas" than the entrees. Alameda definitely needs a restaurant like this: lively, slightly upscale -- my housemate really enjoyed to decor, which feature huge photos of Cuban scenes -- but at a reasonable price point (entrees all under $20). They certainly seemed to have pulled a very diverse crowd that was enjoying itself. I'm guessing the food, while it met the "did it taste good" test, would not satisfy someone who was looking for "real deal" Cuban food.

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  1. Sounds like the original in Walnut Creek. Pan-Latin fusion.

    For real Cuban food, there's Paladar in SF (now open until 7pm Thursdays and Fridays) and Habana in San Jose.

    1. Looking forward to a report on the Cuban sandwich.

      The mediocre mojito is marked down to half-price for happy hour

      1518 Park St, Alameda, CA 94501

      5 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        Good tip. It wasn't a great mojito (I've had worse), but it wasn't a bad drink if you weren't expecting something deliciously minty. Unfortunately for them, I've had much better mint-based cocktails right in Alameda, like the aforementioned one at Ching Hua and the slightly different but even more delicious Missionary's Downfall at Forbidden Island.

        However, at half price, with some "tapas," it could be quite enjoyable.

        1. re: rworange

          Love the Cubano! most satisfying I've had in the Bay Area (though it's not like I'm chasing down all the Cuban restaurants in the Bay-- definitely tastier than the Hobnob's version). The roast pork is flavorful and not dry; a quality pickle balances the fat of the pork and cheese; the bread tender and toasty. However, they add a thin tomato slice and whimpy leaf of lettuce, which I don't think need to be there (pitch it).

          My idea of a delightful return to the island after my evening commute: saddling up to the bar with a mojito from Amy, a Cubano, and a handful of the boniato fries. aahh...

          While Havana may not be the most authentic Cuban food in the Bay Area, I think this restaurant provides a great "scene" alternative to the crowded bar of La Pinata. The price point is appropriate for Alameda. And the bar/lounge is a great place to grab a drink and a bite with your friends and to watch Park St. strolling by.

          1. re: nerdigrrl

            I'll definitely try the Cubano (sans tomato and lettuce!) next time. They really need to work on the mojitos, though. I don't know why the mint isn't coming through the way it should -- maybe the mint leaves should be pre-macerated in something?

            Can you tell me more about the food at the HobNob? Anything particularly good there?

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Hobnob is a great little hangout joint. the truffle/herb fries are great and I really liked the calamari. Mostly small snack food dishes like sliders and fish & chips. fun atmo, and good cocktails. prices are very reasonable. plus they have boardgames to play while you hang out.

              looking on their website, it looks like they serve brunch too.

              1. re: nicedragonboy


                1313 Park St, Alameda, CA 94501

        2. Thank you for your post Ruth. I drove there on Saturday night to try the restaurant, but ended up not going there because of the line out the door. I'm going to try to get there during the week. Maybe the service will be better when things are slower. I agree, Alameda definitely need more tapas like and other interesting restaurants!

          1. Thanks for the report, I've been waiting to see if you'd gone yet. I grabbed the to-go menu and the Tapas dishes definitely looked more intriguing to me than the entrees. Hoping to go before the end of the month.

            1. Follow-up: went in Sunday evening with my sister (jlafler), BIL and two-year-old niece. The place was hopping at 5:30, although we didn't have to wait for a table. They had a highchair for my niece and she was not the only baby -- trust Alameda to be family-friendly.

              We ordered just tapas and they were pretty tasty. In particular I thought the mixed grill was good, and large enough (two generous skewers with skirt steak, chorizo and pork tenderloin on a bed of rice) to be an entree. The service was much better, and everyone was really sweet about the fact that my niece ends up with a fair amount of food on the floor. I don't seem to have mentioned it before, but the bread is really good -- moist, probably containing olive oil, similar to a focaccia dough.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                I read in the Contra Costa Times: Havana is doing Mojito Mondays, with all mojitos half-off all day and all night every Monday. Traditional mojitos will be just $3 and pitchers (serving six people) will cost just $15. Havana is on Bonanza Street in the Creek, and on Park Street in Alameda.

                1. re: hhc

                  Yeah, we stumbled on this at the Alameda location last Monday, and it really is a good deal. I wasn't drinking, but my wife liked her mojito quite a bit. And at that price, you really can't beat it.

                  Thought the food was just OK, though. The bread (also mentioned by someone else) was probably the highlight. We ordered a salad and tapas, and most everything was on the sweet side and not in a good way--especially the sauce that came with the mixed grill. Cuban sandwich was just OK, nothing special.