From chicken soup to empanadas, a miracle under the radar
Usually, “first looks” that are done here are of new (or newish) restaurants in and around Boston, but sometimes a dining spot is so little-known that it almost feels like it must have recently opened even though it has been around for awhile. And such is the case with the Old Havana, a four-year-old Cuban eatery that was recently discovered and is one of those restaurants that might leave you kicking yourself, saying, “Why didn’t I know about this spot earlier?” If you’ve never heard of the place, welcome to the club, because even media people and industry folks don’t really seem to have heard of it.
The Old Havana resides in a homey-looking space on Centre Street that was once home to Tacos El Charro, a marvelous spot for Mexican fare that had been around for 30 years or so. Many in the Boston area may be familiar with Centre Street, as the lower section of this road cuts through a bustling part of JP with a number of very popular restaurants, but the section of road around Hyde Square is equally busy but less known to people outside of the neighborhood, with both the restaurants and shops reflecting the close-knit Latino community, which includes people of Cuban heritage—and is reflected in the dining spots such as this one, as well as El Oriental de Cuba and Miami Restaurant. Much like its predecessor, the Old Havana has a warm and inviting atmosphere, with two rooms of dining that include both high-tops and regular tables, mirrors along the walls that make the space seem larger than it is, televisions that are tuned to Spanish-speaking programs, and a fascinating old RCA Victor system in the middle of the place that has a record player, TV, and radio. The bathroom here, by the way, conjures up visions of Strip T’s in Watertown, where you walk down a staircase, wind through a basement area, then walk back up a bit to a “throne room” where, if you’re tall, you will definitely need to watch your head.
The Old Havana tends to lean more toward cheap eats and street food than upscale fare, with such options as chicken soup, cod fritters, beef patties, empanadas, an avocado salad, steak and tuna sandwiches, a grilled chicken breast stuffed with shrimp, shredded beef in Creole sauce, fried pork chops, deep-fried whole red snapper, and seafood paella. A few items of note that were recently tried at the restaurant include round slices of garlic bread that are placed on the table at the start of the meal; savory omelet chunks with potatoes, onions, and ham; a slightly sweet, smoky, and spicy Spanish sausage; elongated ham croquettes that are deep-fried and have a thick breaded coating; crispy plantain chips that have a mild flavor and fried plantains, which are probably less healthy but have more of a meaty and juicy taste to them; a classic Cuban sandwich with ham, tender roasted pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard all stuffed into freshly made Cuban bread; a wonderful version of arroz con pollo with rice, olives (which are mixed into the rice), peas, slices of red pepper, and a good helping of bone-in chicken; and for dessert, a plate of churros with the fried strips of dough covered in cinnamon sugar. The Old Havana does not serve alcohol, but some of the drinks offered are very fine, including a rich-tasting mango smoothie and a milder mamey smoothie that has a unusual mix of flavors, bringing to mind everything from watermelon to sweet potatoes to even a bit of pumpkin. (Mamey is a tropical fruit found in Cuba and elsewhere in the region.)
Initial impressions of the Old Havana are quite positive overall, with many more dishes to try there in future visits. How it got this far under the radar is anyone’s guess, but perhaps it is the space itself, because Tacos El Charro was also a real hidden gem back in the day. Cuban food in general is a cuisine that is often overlooked by diners, but it shouldn’t be, as it reflects exactly what simple comfort food should be all about, and the Old Havana seems to do it about as well as anyone in the region.
THE OLD HAVANA. 349 CENTRE ST., JAMAICA PLAIN.