Black Bean Therapy

Sometimes only Cuban food will do.
Stress makes me long for it. Like chocolate, I believe, black beans must release endorphins -- daily pills for daily ills. Bickering with my husband, the cat misbehaving, even the phone ringing too many times in an evening can launch me in search of a bowlful of fibrous happiness to temporarily glue together the shattered remnants of my nerves.

The workplace, too, sparks desire in me for a good Cuban meal (although I suspect "workplace" is simply a euphemism for "stress"). At least once a week I find myself joining the other business locals in Little Havana for mariquitas with mojo criollo and the honest bistec de pollo lunch special.

Even road trips fuel the craving. Driving home from the Keys, for instance, when the southernmost sun overwhelms the car's air conditioner and turns us into whiny brats, the question becomes not when will we stop but when will we stop for lunch? Of course, we know where we'll eat -- we won't settle for anything less than the taste that fits the moment, Manny and Isa's. That restaurant's understanding of meringue and custard convinces me each time to buy a whole Key lime pie rather than the single slice I swear beforehand is all I'm capable of eating.

The problem with Cuban food, for me anyway, is that its comfort becomes so habitual I end up eating in the same restaurants. For seafood and paella I dine at Las Rias Gallegas; for arroz con pollo I frequent La Esquina de Tejas. In a city where there are as many Cuban restaurants as there are Cuban grandmothers, this is called playing it safe.

Dining recently at Villa Habana was certainly not playing it safe, if only for the fact that the restaurant seemed not to exist. Working on a colleague's recommendation, I could locate it neither in the phone book nor through directory assistance. When I finally found a phone number -- two months after I began my search -- I called for the street address and directions. "On Coral Way, across the street from the Sears," a waiter said. Easy enough. I handed the information to some friends from work and arranged to meet them for Friday night dinner.

One of them actually made it to Villa Habana. The rest got lost, due to a misunderstanding -- the 411 operator had given me the wrong phone number. When I believed I was calling Villa Habana, I was actually calling a restaurant two blocks west of it; this restaurant had the word "Havana" in its name. After waiting at Villa Habana for an hour, my resourceful friend reconnoitered at the restaurant "across from the Sears," and located two more of us before returning to the patient Villa Habana and the terribly cranky me. Another guest -- my resourceful friend's boyfriend -- became permanently lost and went home after waiting too long at the other restaurant. This made my friend cranky, too.

Ill humor being as contagious as a head cold, by the time we were ready to order, my whole party had an attitude. Coupled with the lateness of the hour was the fact that most of us had spent an entire 40-hour work week together. It suddenly began to feel as if dinner were an interminable extension of the office. Villa Habana seemed an appropriate setting at that moment -- yet another situation in which only Cuban food would satisfy not just the stomach but the irritable soul.

Maybe all this prologue is nothing more than an excuse for our excesses when we finally ordered our food. We began with complimentary baskets of freshly toasted Cuban bread and sopas. The black bean soup boasted a rich, dense puree, tasting of sweet sherry and salty ham. A sharp kick of chopped onions tempered both flavors with its own.

The Spanish white bean soup also had a hearty appeal, a thick stock of beans and pork fat. Though animal fat tends to offend some who find it floating in their soup, I come from a culture that spreads chicken fat like butter on egg bread and calls it good for you. A Cuban woman in my group noted that the generation now appropriating the recipes of its abuelas is also adapting them to today's health standards, making them lighter, less artery-hardening. In a way, it's too bad. Cooked in any fashion other than fattening, some dishes can never achieve the same taste. Others, like a successful mutation, will improve the whole cuisine; these will be the ones to survive, dishes this generation will pass along to its heirs.

Chorizo, however, is best made in the traditional manner. We gobbled the generous, barely greased curls of the fried Spanish sausage and onions with an optional twist of lime for additional flavor. The tamal antipasto we deemed less a success, the slices of boneless pork shoulder a bit too arid. However, the ham that also accompanied the plate was a beautiful sunset-pink treat, not overly salted but pleasantly cured. Placed on bread, these slices of meat made impromptu -- if incomplete -- Cuban sandwiches.

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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