Habana, Cuba in the 1930’s and 40’s must really have been something. Incredible bars and booze, casinos, marinas, great food and entertainment, it was nearby and yet exotic. That same feeling of nearby yet exotic holds true for the Habana Restaurant in Costa Mesa. It also is one of the few late night places in Orange County, open until 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
An intimate yet exotic bar plus a large patio dining area that transports you to a tropical paradise set the stage for some wonderful food. The bar is an excellent place to start your sojourn into the delights of Cuban cuisine. It is also the ideal late-night hangout, much as many of the great bars that author Ernest Hemingway used to drink at in Habana, Cuba when he lived there in the ’40s and ’50’s. It is easy to sit out on Habana Restaurant’s spacious patio and picture yourself on an island paradise. Seating is available inside and out so depending on your mood or the party you are with, Habana can run all the way from a romantic hideout to a island party. Perusing the drink menu, you’ll notice a lot of specialty cocktails. Some, like the mojito classico, are popular Cuban drinks, while others are definitely different cocktails mixed by expert bartenders. Habana does drinks the right way, with fresh lime juice, fresh mint and cane sugar. The mojito shows why it is such a popular drink in Cuba, it is light, refreshing and easy to drink. Besides the classic white rum version, there is an aged Cruzan rum version as well as Habana’s own creations with blueberry, blackberry or raspberry.
A capirinha is not Cuban, but rather Brazil’s national drink. At Habana, however, they have adopted it as their own. Made with cachacha, a similar spirit to rum, it contains freshly muddled lime and raw cane sugar. Much as with rum, the standard cachacha yields a refreshing, smooth drink. For a more assertive flavor, Habana has Ypicoa Ouro Cachacha, a gold cachacha that is aged, yielding a slight hint of the barrel aging with a slight woody taste depending on the barrels used. Either way, this is a nice drink to have two of—one at the bar and then one out on the patio while enjoying the ambience.
Another drink of note is their sangrias. Made in either white or red wine versions, a combination of spirits with fresh fruit marinated in them overnight makes a nice drink to enjoy, especially on a warm evening. Habana’s insistence on using fresh fruits and herbs in their drinks really does make a difference in the flavor of anything coming out of their bar. One more interesting way to go is their rhum flight, consisting of 3 different rhums served in 1 oz. Portions. The rum, from light to full-bodied, gives the taster a chance to see differences that are not apparent when rum is used in a mixed drink.
Cuban food has always been known as the crown jewel of Caribbean cuisine, using elements and techniques from the indigenous Taino people of Cuba, African and Spanish, combined with influences from the rest of the surrounding islands. No where is that more apparent than their ceviche appetizer, combining elements of different countries into the dish. In Habana’s version, fresh shrimp and mild ahi are mixed with chunks of tomato and onion and served in a bowl made of half of a fresh coconut. The ceviche is topped with a yellow tomato habanero salsa and scooped up with fried plantain chips. Habana’s presentation is top-notch and the flavor combination superb. A mussels and clams with chorizo appetizer is also a nice seafood starter.
Sharing appetizers at Habana is a must in order to taste the many different choices they have. Empanadas are another appetizer that has versions throughout the Caribbean. Habana’s empanadas, handmade there, are filled with either chicken or vegetables and topped with crema fresca. A banana-habanero dipping sauce on the side adds an nice amount of heat.
Another must-get item are the stuffed pork croquettas, filled with manchego cheese and roast pork, breaded and deep-fried. Served with a tomato salsa, these often are an item that seems to have a second portion ordered when guests like it so much they don’t want to share.
Main courses at Habana are plentiful and delicious. Roast chicken is an easy dish to make, but a hard dish to make good. Habana Restaurant’s version is a half chicken, slow roasted and then topped with some excellent fresh pickled onions. It comes with a some maduros, the sweet plantains and a side of white rice and black beans that is known in that section of the Caribbean as ‘Moros y Cristianos, ‘Moors (black) and Christians (white), a nod to the mix of the region’s population. The chicken’s crispy black and brown skin crackles and serves as a perfect foil to the juicy chicken. A Garlic Mojo sauce tops the chicken for a truly Cuban flavor.
Pork is a favorite throughout Cuba and Habana’s version of roast pork osso bucco, called El Puerco Primo, is an amazing dish. A whole pork shank is slow roasted and then flash fried for a moist interior and crispy exterior. A delicious au jus accompanies it. Garlic mashed potatoes are fresh with just enough bite to them and Cuban Collard Greens surrounds the pork for a hearty side dish. Again, the maduros is served on the side and a delicious sofrito tops the pork. This is easily one of the best pork dishes you can find anywhere.
The famous dish Ropa Viejas, a version of a beef pot roast is on the menu as well as a smoked and then grilled skirt steak called Skirt Steak-Estillo Churrasco. A chimichurri sauce tops the nicely grilled beef. Unlike many restaurants where vegetarian means steamed or grilled veggies, Habana gives the vegetarian some real choices. A vegetarian tamale pie is made with polenta, cheese and veggies and there is also a vegan option for this dish.
A wide selection of Cuban cafes, aperitifs and desserts are available to end the meal. Bananas make an appearance in both deep-fried fritters and a delicious banana bread pudding. The fritters, served with fresh fruit and a delicious sauce are another dish that is seen at every table and for good reason. Sweet, smooth, crunchy, tart; this dish has it all. One other thing of note, Habana Restaurant keeps late hours, so it is a perfect place to go for some delicious desserts after a show, clubbing or just for a fun place to hang out for the evening. The patio really is the place for that, a romantic dessert for two in a tropical, intimate setting is hard to beat.The patio is also a great place for a larger group, especially in the comfortable evenings we have been having.
Habana Restaurant is open 4 days a week until 1a.m., with Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings til 2:00 a.m. The service is excellent and it is a great place to go with a group on an evening’s outing. In an area leaded with excellent choices in restaurants, not only is Habana itself unique but the food and service put it right in the mix with the top restaurants in Orange County.
2930 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626