The New Revolution at Little Havana Doesn’t Quite Take Hold
Before diving into the menu of Cuban cuisine at Little Havana,let’s review what you already know about this South Baltimore institution: that the Sunday brunch package includes bottomless glasses of Bloody Marys or mimosas—certain friends of mine designate occasional “consumption Sundays” and come here to celebrate life—and that the patio overlooking the harbor is one of the sweetest spots in the city, especially with the mint fragrance of a fresh mojito filling your nostrils. Even in gloomy weather, Little Havana offers ambiance for miles inside its cavernous warehouse space and, for Baltimore, a pretty heterogeneous mix of folks having fun.
1325 Key Highway
The food, though, always played second fiddle to the ambiance. At best, the pub stuff provided a good deal, but the menu could never have been confused with a serious attempt at replicating or reimagining Cuban cuisine, something Little Havana’s loyal customers, the restaurant’s web site suggests, encouraged the restaurant to bring on. And so they have.
The dinner menu is now a serious assemblage of Cuban cuisine with welcome intrusions of Yanqui ingredients and flair—nuevo Cubano, they’re calling it. It’s just ambitious and interesting enough to make Little Havana feel more like a real cuisine-conscious restaurant without coming across as contrived or show-offy. Everything tempts—jumbo lump crab cakes with habanero remoulade ($19.95), asparagus wrapped with flank steak ($13.95), shrimp sautéed in butter and simmered in lobster sauce ($18.95). But a recent dinner here started strongly, and then gradually lost momentum. As happens so often in the modern American restaurant as to be axiomatic, soups, salads, and appetizers of great clarity and focus gave way to entrées that were indistinct or awkward.
I don’t think you’ll find a better vegetarian black bean soup ($3.95) than Little Havana’s—thick and creamy, brimming with firm whole beans, topped with sour cream and onions, and served in a crusty boule. Terrific, too, was a special soup (hope for it), a muy spicy tomato bisque ($3.95) stuffed with tender crawfish and slime-free okra. The masas de puerca fritas ($5.95) ranks with the all-city super apps. It’s simply cubes of juicy pork tenderloin—flash-frying gives the cubes’ surface the subtlest crispness. A cilantro-lime dipping sauce, entirely unnecessary, is bracingly delicious nonetheless. Vegetarian black bean cakes ($5.95), served with sour cream and velvety homemade guacamole, are light, gently seasoned, and fresh-tasting. We admired, too, the ensalada vaquero BBQ ($8.95), which layered strips of beef atop a freshly dressed mixed-greens salad flecked with tomatoes, corn, and blue cheese.
So, a flying start. And then, the food stopped soaring. Or maybe it’s just the sight on incoming plates of that that inevitable veggie side of zucchini, yellow squash, and sugar peas that sucks all of the oxygen from the room. The food began to look like glorified pub grub. The roasted half-chicken ($12.95) was tender enough, but not juicy. It would have been so much better had the skin been more thoroughly rubbed with (the listed) rosemary, garlic, and thyme, and had it been roasted beyond a drab beige to a golden brown. Paella ($16.95) never gelled but remained a collection of incoherent ingredients—never-succulent specimens of shrimp, scallops, clams, and mussels resting atop a bowl of tomato-y rice. Our tongues could suss out neither the saffron in the rice nor the curry in the tomato sauce.
The filete Cubano ($15.95) remained similarly inert. A roasted garlic-jalapeño sauce was tasty and invitingly complex but was incidental to the steak it was ladled on; maybe a thinner cut would have helped the beef play more nicely with the sauce, and with the Inevitable Veggie Medley and mashed sweet potatoes. While ambitious in its striving for authenticity, a sauté of tender pork medallions, apples, and caramelized onions simmered in coconut cream—the puercos and manzanas ($14.95)—failed to ignite. The flavors remained stubbornly aloof.
At the very last moment, though, one final acrobatic thrill—for dessert, grilled mango slices ($6.25) served with cinnamon-sugared fried plantains and vanilla ice cream. It was a little bit of perfection that helped us feel a little better about what had been missing from the main meal: brave, intense flavors.