Habana brings Cuban kitsch, hit-or-miss food to the Spectrum – Orange County Register

The long-awaited second iteration of Habana opened last month at the Irvine Spectrum. The original opened 20 years ago at The Lab in Costa Mesa, where the sexy candlelit patio and tropical cocktails have long been an even bigger draw than the Cuban-inspired food.

The new Habana takes the Cuba theme much further than the original, which, design-wise, always struck me as more Mexican than Cuban but fun nonetheless. The new location exudes the sultry tropical romance of a formerly posh hotel stripped bare of embargoed luxuries yet determined to hold onto its long-lost grandeur.

And in some ways, the atmosphere succeeds too well at conveying the struggles of an impoverished island nation. Brooms and dirty dustbins are stored in plain view. The patio is a landmine of hazards, from the booby-trap-like gas cords waiting to be tripped over to the ankle-busting umbrella stands that felled a busboy on one of my visits. There’s even a random four-inch plumbing pipe protruding from the patio floor near my table, which naturally I stumble over (in broad daylight) and land hard against the table. I consider myself lucky. Others, undoubtedly won’t be, especially at night when the patio is so dimly lit. While there’s no denying the charm, I have to also wonder how it is even possible given these hazards that the fire marshal granted this place an occupancy permit.

As for the food, like the original location, it is hit or miss. The real draw here is the romanticism: the music inspired by Desi Arnaz, Celia Cruz and The Buena Vista Social Club, the candles, the cocktails served in coconuts, the rum and Cokes, the pink napkins and ornate glassware, the waiters dressed in summer whites, and the bartenders in their Panama hats.

The best thing to eat is probably the charrasco, or skirt steak, which is perfectly charred and served with very good black beans and rice, plus grilled corn and fried sweet plantains. The ropa vieja is also very good, a classic rendition of Cuba’s most delicious export, a pile of braised and shredded beef with rice and beans.

Of the various empanadas, the best choice is the one filled with corn. And for dessert, the flan is ultra thick and creamy.

You’ll want to avoid the paella, which is a wet, sludgy mess that more closely resembles rice pudding than real paella.

The guacamole is decent, but it’s served with awful tostones, which are meant to be crispy twice-fried green plantains but instead convey the inedible texture and unpleasant…

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