The Cuban Conundrum

No one should know more about preparing great seafood than people who live surrounded by the sea, on an island, like Cuba. And in fact I've had some fantastic Cuban fish dishes -- pargo Alicante in wine-enriched brown sauce, garnished with crisp lemon-marinated shrimp; pescado de Obatala e Inle with almond butter; lovely cold-fish flans -- but almost always in the homes of Cuban friends. At most Cuban restaurants, fabulous fish is almost as difficult to find as a fabulous green salad.

It makes little sense. Numerous times while dining with friends who don't eat meat, I've guiltily ordered lechon asado accompanied by mouthwatering sour-orange mojos that would've lightly and brightly perked up my companions' fish. But most often that fish arrived at the table either bare or suffocated in tomato glop, not to mention overcooked till it was hard enough to pave a patio. It's almost as though at most Cuban eateries, seafood is an afterthought.

That's what made Habana Seafood Café seem worth investigating, even though its out-of-the-way neighborhood is more known for discount tile warehouses than restaurants. And a particularly friendly welcome immediately lessened the annoyance of fighting airport-area traffic jams to get there. The space is a simple luncheonette, the sort of place where you're out of luck if you don't speak Spanish, but all personnel spoke at least a little English. In fact a couple of fluent servers, noticing a moment of confusion during the ordering process, rushed over to help.

Food mostly matched the décor rather than the service -- preparations were basic rather than extraordinary, though there were indeed many more fish dishes than normally found on Cuban restaurant menus. Once again, however, some of the discrepancies between meat and seafood items made little sense. Chicken croquetas, for instance, were wonderful, fat little logs with a filling so lightly melt-in-your-mouth custardy it seemed near impossible that their delicate, crisp breading could hold them together. Fish croquetas, on the other hand, were thin and uniformly heavy as lead, with a filling that was mostly breadcrumbs.

Fish fillets were available in the usual varieties (grouper, mahi-mahi, snapper, and salmon) and the usual preparations (grilled, fried, or breaded). The fried snapper ($7.95), a rather small piece, was nicely spiced but sautéed too long and too hot for a thin fillet. Much more precision-cooked was langosta al ajillo ($16.95), shell-on chunks of moist tail meat in a rich cream sauce that was intensely garlicky. All entrées come with two sides, of which tostones -- four big disks of flattened and fried green plantain, with a tart, citrusy garlic mojo dip -- was the standout. Arroz moro was dry and bland. Black beans were thin and bland. And maduros, while tasty, were barely a bite; only two tiny pieces of fried sweet plantains were on the plate.

An order of sopa aurora ($3.49) was thick and rich but puzzling. I've had versions in which the apricot-colored aurora was caused by puréed red pepper or even carrot rather than the usual tomato. But I've never had a version that hadn't even a faint blush of pink. Still it would have been a very good plain crema de queso had the soup not been packed with lumps of cheese owing to undercooking and insufficient whisking.

The seafood café's best item? Pan con lechon, an extraordinarily succulent, juicy, generously stuffed, budget-priced ($2.95) roast-pork sandwich. Go figure.

 
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