If you’re a fan of downtown Gulfport (and this being Pride month, there may be few better places to have a celebratory dinner than the LGBT-friendly environs of this quirky waterfront town), you may already be familiar with the distinctive facade of Habana Café, with its arched windows and green-and-white color scheme. But if you’ve only passed by this Gulfport Boulevard landmark on your way to the town center, then you’ve been missing something — a virtual trip to Cuba.
What’s striking as you enter is the restaurant’s volume, and I’m not speaking about sound. The interior is alive with color; dining there is like being inside a 40-foot-square Rubik’s cube, with a rainbow of lacquered chairs in colors to match. White Christmas lights line the stairway to the second floor and dot the beams, giving the room a welcome sparkle. The ceiling is dominated by two huge floating islands that hide the HVAC pipes and hover over the premises like enormous decaying ladyfingers. It’s a cozy place, with odles of natural light flooding the room through those huge windows, which interrupt a floor-to-ceiling “balustrade and column” trompe l’oeil mural above a long, welcoming wooden banquette.
Sangria is the obvious drink choice to complement the Cuban cuisine, and a good place to start your meal. Habana makes that easy by offering three tasty homemade choices: Deep Red, Golden Yellow, and Classy Champagne, which are all available by the glass, carafe, or pitcher. The last is appropriately fizzy, but they all are dominated by fruit juice with scant evidence of the alcohol; nonetheless, they are refreshing.
If you have any inclination whatsoever, it would be a mistake to skip the Corona battered Spanish onion ring appetizer — which I nearly did, but my dinner companion intervened. The onion rings are indeed, to quote the menu, “fried to golden perfection,” and served with a tangy horseradish mayo. I wish I could be as positive about the Papas Rellenas, which sound great, but do not deliver. The two baseball-sized orbs have an enticing deep-fried exterior, but it masks bland mashed potatoes and too little meat stuffing.
Two popular favorites stand out on the Habana menu. Their famous Lechon Asado Oriente (or Eastern) Region Style Pork has its roots in Afro-Caribbean cuisine, rather than the European influences that pervade western Cuba. Shreds of succulent, slow-roasted pork — topped with soft, translucent rings of Spanish onion — glisten in a light, garlicky broth perfectly spiced with oregano and bay that practically begs you to dunk the omnipresent Cuban bread. This is doubly true for the Camarones Borracho, or drunken shrimp. Bite-size Gulf shrimp swim in a sea of white wine and an herbal mojo sauce; just be quick when you dip… so the nectar del Mar doesn’t run down your chin. Luckily, both entrées are also available in appetizer portions, so you aren’t forced to choose.
These two dishes have been seducing diners since Habana opened, but the surprise entrée is the inspired Filete de Pescado Empanizado. The farm-raised catfish is mild, which makes it the perfect vehicle for the crispy sautéed plantain coating and spritz of acidic lime.
Picadillo is a traditional beef dish made from ground sirloin and a heady mix of onion, bell pepper, garlic and tomatoes called “sofrito” which is an essential component, with variations, in tropical cuisines. The addition of potatoes, green olives and raisins should add layers of flavor; but Habana’s version is as dry and unappealing as the pork asado is seductive and juicy. Similarly, the palomilla style Bistec de Pollo butterflied chicken breast may look pleasingly caramelized, but it is dry, dry, dry and could benefit from a pre-sauté brining and/or an accompanying sauce; a squeeze of fresh citrus will not suffice. My chicken preference was for Arroz con Pollo a la Chorrera (a beer and wine braise), but alas, no más; it’s apparently only available on weekends, although that’s not indicated on the menu.
The desserts are unadorned, but pure-flavored, representatives of their sweet species. Josefa Gonzalez-Hastings’ cream cheese flan is the award-winning love child of cheesecake and Cuban custard that snatched Southern Living’s $10K prize in 2003. The traditional flan, which I preferred, is denser and floats in an intoxicating pool of burnt caramel. A third winner is the creamy key lime pie, which packs plenty of the tart citrus punch too often missing in this iconic dish.
Any meal at Habana Café includes enough savory black beans, rice, fried plantains and bread to feed an army of Cuban rebels or, at least a passel of Bay area teens. The entrées are ample, the servers perkily attentive, and the price is right; just choose carefully and you’ll be as happy as a cigar aficionado luxuriating in a precious Cuban.