Little Havoc

Little Havana will drive you to drink

"Nothing here is spicy." This declaration from a Little Havana server, after a question on the heat level of the beef tips, is perhaps unintentionally tone-setting. After all, Little Havana is pure poseur: A bar in search of a theme, it settles on a Caribbean Island long led by a tyrannical thug revered in Hollywood and the Jimmy Carter Center. This is how trite fashion is born.

Fashion is what Little Havana has, and it kitsches the hell out of it until there's nothing left but a plastic corpse. A huge pink flamingo peers down from the patio arbor strung with twinkling lights. The outside walls are lathered in pastel murals. Old metal patio and porch chairs drenched in lazy pastels with little rust blemishes ring the tables. Plastic pink flamingos perch in the flowerbeds that rim this restaurant and bar. Perhaps they're foraging for bits of bread diners might toss out from the tapas plates. It's hard to figure out what else to do with it. Blackened, cold and soggy, it's a proper meal for these icons that wore out their welcome decades ago, leaving an important question in their wake: "When does a campy trinket go from threadbare cliché to cultural terrorism?"

Other things flesh out the theme. On the upper patio deck, there is a red plastic palm tree with red coconuts dangling from the top like spanked and swollen naughty bits. Perhaps they light up at night. There is also a large birdhouse posted on a pole above the patio furniture. Don't know if this is campy faux house or a real feather breeding pen. Whatever it is, it's disturbing to see real starlings congregate on the structure above the tables.

Drink up at Little Havana, the food needs all the 
lubrication it can get.
Tom Jenkins
Drink up at Little Havana, the food needs all the lubrication it can get.

Like much of the food in and around the American continental landmass, Cuban cuisine is a mutt, mixing strains of Spanish, French, African and Portuguese culinary culture. It's mostly peasant food, employing a few basic staples such as black beans, rice and roasted meats with seasonings such as garlic, cumin, oregano and citrus juices. How does it hang here?

It drives you to drink--not bad for a bar. On the patio, drinkers can soak up excess ethanol with a tapas menu. Tapas, that Spanish innovation that seems to have become the ubiquitous moniker for bar food, rings with promise here, at least on paper. Choose from a roster of fritters, empanadas, fried calamari, tostones (twice-fried plantains in garlic) and little Cuban sliders. Some of it has genuine Spanish pedigree, like octopus in paprika sauce flecked with pepper flakes, a spicy thing that must have escaped our server's palate. The dish is cephalopod arms outstretched over a bed of iceberg scraps ringed by that charred soggy pink flamingo bread. The sauce has a distinctive burn, the only assertive element on the plate, because the meat is pasty mush--like a burrito filling that hasn't had the decency to take the shape of the vessel it fills--instead of firm and chewy. Bewildered, we decided to retest it on a second run. On this visit, the kitchen was cleaned out of octopus, so they subbed (with our permission) some unfried calamari rings from the fried calamari recipe. The bread was lightly toasted and crisp. The meat was tender but firm--maybe too firm. Here's why: The sauce was scattered with strips of cellophane. Time for a beer.

This is where intense flavor begins and ends at Little Havana. The rest of the menu items often arrive with visual appeal, only to wax ugly in the mouth. Yet let's be fair. This is a place to come to drink, so let's see how the rest of the menu tastes when drunk.

Conch and crab fritters are things of beauty. Four golden bronze bulbs arranged in a perfect row, striped with a wavering pastel peach bead of remoulade. Take a bite. The crust is crisp and greaseless. The fragrant marine sweetness of crab and conch unfurls with the steam. Bite deeper and chew and the complex flavors unfold into...mush. Gad, the things are little more than fried balls of gluey filler. But Little Havana serves tequila shots in plastic cups. Let's have one.

There. The inhibitions are sufficiently restrained to test the empanadas. Here there is a choice: chorizo (a coarse Mexican/Spanish sausage) and potato or black bean and queso. The black bean and queso empanadas are greenish cream crescent moons. Take a bite and the cold spongy surface leaks oily ooze flecked with black detritus that could be bean substance, but it would be foolhardy to swear to it. Wait a minute. Are we eating near-raw dough? Time for a tequila-shot conga line.

Sliders with a "Cuban flare" were an outage. So our server comped a plate of shrimp with red peppers and potatoes. Respectable. Hold the shots. Beef tips are swamped in deliciously fragrant chimichurri, a sauce of olive oil, vinegar, herbs, garlic and onion. Spoon on a little and the clean flavor teases the buds. Approach those tips with caution. They're gray and tapered at the ends. First bite reveals grainy firmness, but they're dull: no juice, no flavor. They taste like brisket boiled in club soda. Spoon up the chimichurri and order a tequila-shot platoon plus a margarita.

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