Habana: A Little Bit of Gluten-Free Cuba on SoCo

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.” (Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”)

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” (Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast)

Habana 4

Admittedly, Hemingway’s description of the oysters in the quote above has nothing to do with this review of Habana, a Cuban restaurant in Austin. The passage, though, is so sensual, so abundantly full of description and emotion. It is beautifully written. It deserves to be read often! More apropos to this review is the first quote above; it describes a café that because it is clean and well lit, attracts lonely people seeking solace during long, sleepless nights. The night we passed by Habana while getting in a late run, the restaurant, its neon lights glowing red and yellow against the black sky, beckoned warmly to us. Festive Cuban music floated faintly toward us, and we could hear the soft chatter and bursts of laughter of restaurant patrons enjoying themselves at the patio tables that sit under thatched roofs. Habana’s appearance and ambience seemed a place of refuge from the dark, chaotic night.

This particular Saturday evening was a busy one in Austin. With a  parade attracting a crowd on the sidewalks of down-town Austin, Phillip and I decided to change our regular route and head South on Congress to avoid having to dodge in and out among people milling about the sidewalks on N Congress (the direction we usually run when we run downtown Austin). The sun had set by the time we began our run. We were running amid neon lights flashing a spectrum of colors, past people for waiting for buses, and past people socializing in the parking lots of convenience stores and other businesses. The air was frequently filled with the sound of sirens blaring from emergency vehicles. More than once we were passed by pairs of APD cars speeding by, red lights flashing. With its cacophony of sound and montage of sights, this street we’ve often traveled during daylight hours seemed unfamiliar after dark this hot, muggy Saturday night. Habana, sitting slightly back from the road on S Habana 5Congress, seemed a peaceful respite from the surrounding impact of the high energy of human spirit released on a Saturday night, the one night of the week people seem to have specifically designated as the night to party. Upon finishing our run and making ourselves generally presentable, Phil and I went back to Habana to bask in its luminous comfort, and to sample its Cuban fare. Naturally I wanted to discover what gluten-free treasures might be hidden among the dishes listed on the menu.

We entered the restaurant about an hour before closing. It was mostly empty by this time, with a couple of people sitting at the gleaming bar and aHabana 10 few more scattered at a table here and there. The tropical-inspired patio, strung with lights and decorated with pink flamingos, was attractive; we chose to sit out there. Our waitress (whose name I learned but have since, sadly, forgotten) arrived soon after we sat down. She handed us our menus and took our drink orders. I spotted a number of dishes on the menu that appeared to be naturally gluten-free. I was particularly interested in the Plantano Loco Sandwich, which the menu describes as “plantain sliced in half and filled with roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese.” To use plantains instead of bread to hold the contents of a sandwich together is a unique idea. I decided to order the sandwich for dinner, and Yuca Frita (Caribbean root vegetable lightly pan-fried and served with mojo) for an appetizer. Of course, the “lightly fried” part of the appetizer description somewhat concerned me, so I questioned the waitress when she returned to take our order. I explained to her that I have Celiac and must avoid eating anything that contains gluten, or is near gluten.

I asked her whether the yuca fries and the plantain on the sandwich were free of flour, and whether they were fried with gluten-containing foods. She answered that she wasn’t sure, but that she would find out. When she returned to our table, she told us that the plantain and yuca are par-fried ahead of time so that they can be quickly prepared when ordered, but that they’re par-fried along with gluten-containing foods. If I ate the dishes I ordered, I risked cross-contamination. As I tried to figure out which of the menu items I could safely eat, this helpful, patient waitress made several trips to the kitchen to find out answers to my questions. She and the kitchen staff worked together to help me find menu items that were safely gluten-free and thus safe for me to eat. Even though we were ordering near the restaurant’s closing time, the waitress never gave us the impression that she was impatient or annoyed with the help I was asking from her, nor did I feel the least bit rushed to order. I finally decided upon the Vaca Frita (described on the menu as shredded beef, grilled with onions, peppers, and garlic, with a hint of lime juice), with the Cubana Salad (lettuce, tomato, and cucumber). Phillip and I decided to order the Yuca Con Mojo (boiled yuca, dressed with mojo de ajo) for an appetizer.

At this point, I reluctantly have to give Habana a less than stellar review. As far as the help I received in determining which menu items are safely gluten-free, I easily and joyfully award this restaurant five stars. It’s a clean restaurant that manages to create a bit of Caribbean atmosphere for those who dine there. The wait and kitchen staffs seem eager to meet the needs of their customers with special dietary restrictions. Sadly, though, the food quality seems mediocre at best, and the prices too high for the marginal quality of the food. For his main dish, Phillip ordered the Cubana Empanada (large empanada stuffed with slow roasted pork, ham, and melted Swiss cheese), which I obviously could not sample. He described it as merely ok: not great, but not bad. I must also give my Cubana Salad and Vaca Frita low to moderate ratings. The salad was just as the menu Habana 9described it: lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. It was very small for having the price tag of $5.99, and the lettuce was not fresh. The Vaca Frita was inconsistent in texture. Although the dish was flavorful, some of the shredded beef clumped Habana 8together and was very dry. In some places, the shredded beef was more moist; these more moist portions were more tasty and had better mouth-feel. Had the dish been consistently moist throughout, it would have been much more enjoyable to eat. We never did receive our appetizer, so I cannot report upon the quality of the Yuca Con Mojo. Since our waitress helped me so generously to find gluten-free options on the menu, I will not fault her for forgetting our appetizer. It did not appear on the final bill, so no harm was done.

Since Phillip and I were eating very close to the restaurant’s closing time, I will at least consider that the food we were served was of lesser quality than the food that’s served during the earlier hours of operation, when it’s fresher. I will probably eat at Habana again, on the strength of the fairly large offering of gluten-free dishes on the menu and the helpful attention the waitress and kitchen staff paid to my specific dietary needs. Interesting gluten-free food is often difficult to find at restaurants; the food at Habana is interesting even if disappointing in quality. It’s setting, with its colored lights, Latin-beat music, pink flamingos, and thatched-roofed patio cabanas, has a holiday-feel to it. Moreover, its location is easy for people in South Austin to reach. I’m not sure Hemingway would have hung out at Habana to enjoy the food it serves, but he may have been Habana 6drawn to the restaurant for its cheerfulness as its colored lights and rhythmic music break through the gloomy dark of night on South Congress.

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