Black Bean Therapy

Still absorbed with the appetizers, we also enjoyed the ham and pork croquetas, lightly and expertly fried. Though some of us disagreed on the manageability of this dish -- these were inch-thick cylinders with the filling completely overwhelming the outer jacket -- we did agree that the minced ham and pork mixture was a tasty homemade version.

Of the main courses, the vaca frita was perhaps the most successful. Seasoned and boiled flank steak was shredded and fried, contrasting a tender center with a crisp, crunchy coating. Served with grilled onions, the platter also arrived, as did all the dinners, with a choice of two typical side dishes: yuca with garlic sauce, the fried round disks of green plantains, soft ripe maduros, buttery white rice, black beans, or French fries.

Another tantalizing preparation was the palomilla, pounded and fried minute steak, which completely satisfied one of the hunger-crazed occupants of my table. His wife's meal, chunks of red snapper in a tomato-based sauce, was the only distinct failure of the evening. Too sweet, as if sugar had been added to the sauce, the fish lost any flavor of its own, resulting in a soft, bland casserole.

On the other hand, the shrimp in Creole sauce (camarones enchilados), fresh shrimp plunged into a simmering sofrito, had a worthy, peppery flavor once some Tabasco sauce had been added. The onion, garlic, and tomatoes achieved a nice balance with sherry, bay leaf, and lime juice. One of the most common problems associated with this dish -- overcooked shellfish -- had been neatly avoided.

Not so neat is the recent history of Villa Habana. Owner Mo Nassem Mohamed (of Cuban-Lebanese heritage) has been working eighteen-hour days to rebuild his livelihood. Another hurricane story? No, although the place looked as if a hurricane had hit it. But Andrew might have been preferable.

Mohamed rented his successful eight-year business to another restaurateur who nearly destroyed it, abandoning both restaurant and staff in unruly states. In order to make emergency repairs, Mohamed had to close Villa Habana for three months, which explains why I could never locate it on Coral Way. This newest version of the restaurant, with Mohamed once again at the helm (along with his uncle, who owns the popular Villa Italia down the street), has celebrated its two-month anniversary with a steady and loyal clientele. Though politics are not debated at the decibel levels my friend insists should be the standard for clients of a Cuban cafe, the owners, I'm sure, are enjoying the clean peace of the redone room. Despite the unfortunate circumstances behind the acquisition of its new polish, there's no reason why it shouldn't survive the second time around. For Cuban food, Villa Habana will certainly do.

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