Come for the Cigars, Stay for the Cake
119 Washington Ave. N., Mpls.;
Cigars remind me of Bugs Bunny. Cigars are hot. Bugs Bunny is hot. Among Bugs fans, maybe one-fifth like him for fully realized reasons--because he's a wise-cracking, street-smart iconoclast who prefers to live a quiet, private life, yet when provoked can rapidly bring his tormentors to their knees and be amused all the while. These people recognize that Bugs exists in a continuum running from Mae West to Chris Rock. When they see him they feel a universal wink: Yes, it says, there are many of us rebels in this sea of blockheads.
The rest of Bugs's fans can be divided into two groups: those who recognize that Bugs is smart, Bugs is funny, Bugs is a winner, and who identify with that--and those who see a talking cartoon rabbit and think: oh, for cute! Bugs is a cultural juggernaut because he exists on all of these levels the way that something purely brainy, funny, and rebellious (Lenny Bruce), or merely winning (the Chicago Bulls), or just cute (Snuggles, the fabric-softener bear), never can.
Likewise cigars, which were nothing years ago and are inescapable now. For the cultural avant-garde they worked as a rebuff to the Nike culture of self-satisfied fitness, as a symbol of allegiance with Groucho Marx and Lillian Hellman, and--perhaps most importantly--as a hurdle the uncool were unlikely to cross, since to smoke cigars involved arcane knowledge (where to smoke, what to buy), an acceptance of long-term health risks, immediate physical pain, and all-around stinkiness. Meanwhile, for conservatives, cigars continued to work as totems of connection to a lineage of fat cats and bigwigs from Boss Tweed to JFK. (For further research see the magazine Smoke, dedicated to the "rising executive.") Lastly there are the people who smoke cigars because they're hip, and they bulk up the numbers.
Which is a long way round of explaining why it's so damn hard to get a table at Cafe Havana. Cafe Havana now occupies the cultural intersection where conservatives, hipsters, and everyone else meet to order cosmopolitans, chew on stogies, and wiggle their fannies to the salsa beat. Reservations on a Saturday night might have to be made weeks in advance, but when you arrive for your table you really do feel as though you've arrived. Spicy Cuban music bounces off the glorious mirrored bar, ricocheting off high tin ceilings and giving conversation a frenetic, energetic edge. Candy-stripe lights, candles, gilt, and chandeliers create a chamber of lively, flattering radiance; funny portraits and hand-painted cigars on the walls of the bar add a liberal dose of whimsy. Patrons tend to be in their best duds, and most everyone is holding a cocktail glass.
Once you arrive at your table it helps to keep the Buca model in mind. Everything will be very good, very festive, very accessible, and moderately priced. (The opposite is the Goodfellow's model, where you provide your own festivity, and the dishes will be exquisite and dearly priced.) My favorite appetizer was the Mariquitas ($4.95). These deep-fried plantain chips served with jalapeño sour cream are finger food in the best tradition--shareable, crunchy, impossible to stop eating, and something you'd never make yourself. The empanadas, flaky pastry turnovers, are also very good, filled with your choice of moist, saucy chicken, spicy chorizo and yucca, or piquant shredded pork ($4.95 for two, $6.95 for four).
Chorizo, sliced, grilled, and served with fried peppers and onions ($5.95), is good, spicy, unpretentious street food. More highbrow offerings miss the mark: The crab cakes ($7.95) are mushy and unexciting, the ceviche ($8.95) is watery and filled with those lackluster quarter-sized bay shrimp. A lentil-asparagus salad ($5.25) had asparagus that could have been a good deal fresher, and the crab-and-shrimp tamale ($8.95) was light on seafood and seemed more like a very moist, flavored cornbread.
Other appetizers, like the Yuca Frita (deep-fried yucca served with jalapeño mayonnaise, $5.95) or the Yuca con Sofrito (sautéed yucca with garlic and onions, $4.95), were very good, tender and roundly flavored, but strike me as satiaters more than appetizers. Just try to get through an entrée after eating a full serving of one of these big, starchy items. It's like having a plate of home fries before dinner.
Paella--in-the-shell mussels and clams, chicken, chorizo, shrimp, and scallops on a bed of saffron rice--is the most festive of the entrées. The dish requires 24-hour notice, a credit-card deposit, and a four-person minimum order, but once the immense platter is lofted toward your table and the oohs and aahs chorus from around the dining room, the advance scheming will seem worth it. You get to spear what you like with big tongs and a giant spoon, which makes the experience seem very much larger than life. My only complaint was that the rice was bland: I prefer my paella spicy and robust, but no one else seemed to share this opinion. With all the goodies perfectly cooked and the portions gargantuan, this would seem to be a crowd-pleasing, party-making dish of little equal. (Paella prices vary with the seafood market and recently ran to $25 per person, including green salads for all.)
My favorite entrée by far was the lamb shank braised with tomatoes, rosemary, and sherry ($12.95). It was succulent, ever so tender, and deeply flavorful. The ropa vieja ($9.95), a shredded beef dish very similar to the lamb, was nearly as good, though even more humble, spread as it was like a stew over rice. A rib-eye steak marinated in citrus and port ($15.95) was strongly flavored and good, but the meat was rather tough. The traditional puerco asado ($9.95), a marinated roast pork dish, is also excellent.
Less thrilling are options like the Arroz con Calamares ($9.95)--simply a scant handful of squid rings on a mountain of saffron rice--and the scallops in tomato-sherry sauce ($13.95), which were overcooked and stewy. But my least favorite dish might well have been the Camarones Enchilados, shrimp in a goopy red sauce. In fact, the seafood was so miss-or-miss it seemed more appropriate to landlocked Minnesota than to sea-cradled Cuba. The marinated tuna steak ($12.95) was dry on one visit and fine on another, and the plantain-breaded red snapper surprised me because it was deep-fried in a thick sugary shell: It may have been too sweet for my taste, but that same fact will make it perfect for many people.
The homemade desserts are surprisingly unpretentious for a spot where you'd expect gold-plated rococo edifices. My favorite is the tres leches ($4.25), a condensed-milk-drenched white cake dripping with a silky boiled icing. Though almost candy-sweet, the cake is absolutely delicious, and I watched several people who swore they were stuffed beyond all hope linger long enough to scrape the last crumbs off their plates. The apple cake ($4.50) is a humble square of moist brown-sugar-iced plain pastry, and it is also impossible to stop eating; the key lime pie ($4.50) is more like a key-lime cheesecake, and I particularly appreciate its lumpy, homemade graham-cracker crust. Homey and humble as they are, these desserts create a lovely feeling that in the middle of all the flair and style beats a loving grandmother's heart. It's a feeling that's more real than any trend, and maybe that's one of the reasons trend-wary Minnesotans have embraced this hot spot so thoroughly. In any event, I suspect that once the zeitgeist moves on from cigars to the next big thing--steam baths? mahjong? soup? orchid cultivation?--the crowds will keep coming for the cake.
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