"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.
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.
But the margaritas are dull, too, with tentative lime bursts rimmed with a metallic aftertaste blunted by weird processed sweetness--the garish traits of cheap margarita mix. Wine? What kind of an idiot orders wine in a faux Cuban bar with pink flamingos? Here's the flavor description for the McMurry Ranch Pinot Noir: light and fruity with cherry cola flavors. The wine is warm (we forgot to order it on the rocks) and musty, with the skunky nose and exhausted fruit flavors that come from a bottle that's had too many oxygen trysts. We asked for a fresh glass. This must have been a confusing request, because the glass was quickly swapped with a fresh clean glass holding the same wine from the same bottle, if not the wine from the old glass. We know this McMurry drink. It doesn't suck. So we ordered it on another visit and got a light, clean and fresh glass of forward berry fruit (uncarbonated). But our Sprite turned out to be tired club soda on the rocks.
Inside, the kitschy Caribbean morphs into nautical sports bar with a swordfish trophy and fishing pix on the walls and lots of televisions flashing everything from NCAA basketball to ESPN SportsCenter to Don Rickles in an Andy Griffith episode. There is also a poster with Fidel blowing cigar smoke in the face of Laura Miller dressed in military garb. Little Havana would, no doubt, like to see Laura Miller sentenced to hard time in an Amarillo smoking lounge. "Madam No is banned from Little Havana Restaurant by order of the owners," reads the poster, above a no-smoking warning (lucky mayor). This is why on one of our visits there were no black ashtrays notched with little butt slots, nor was there a couple bellied up to the bar smoking cigarettes. That would be against the law.
Funny how the food didn't taste any better inside the restaurant than it did on the patio, which is hell on the liver. Fried jerk chicken salad was an impostor. Sure, there was spicy chorizo crumbled over the serviceable greens, chunks of pineapple, bits of faded tomato and strips of mango, but far from jerk-seasoned, the chicken was little more than unseasoned pre-breaded breast in a Caribbean costume. Steak Camilla allegedly had marinated steak that had been pounded and butterflied. The tough, dry meat tasted as if the flavor had been pounded and butterflied out of it. Sautéed red snapper was spongy mush. Soup was impressive, though. Havana caldo gallego, with firm white beans, chorizo and cabbage, was smoky, hearty and rich.
Little Havana has a menu that will drive you to drink, and abar that will drive you to Aqua Velva--a lot like Fidel's Havana. So it's very authentic. 3520 Greenville Ave., 214-370-0400. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m. $-$$
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