Havana Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Havana Restaurant Just East of San Mateo on Menial

“Cuba has bread and pork, but not enough vegetables.
The food we were served was never warm enough.
Cuba is not a place for vegetarians, picky eaters, or the gluten free.”
~Elinor Robin, PhD

On 26 April 1954, CBS-TV aired the 93rd episode of I Love Lucy.  Watching the rerun decades later was essentially my introduction to Cuban food…sort of.  In the memorable episode Ricky decides to quit show business and open up a diner in which Cuban food would be the featured fare.  The Ricardos enter into a precarious partnership with their friends and neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz.  Because Fred and Ethel have the diner savvy and Ricky has the name that brings in diners, unequal division of labor ensues.  Fred and Ethel are stuck behind the counter churning out and plating food while Ricky and Lucy run the front-of-the-house where they glad-hand with guests.  Ultimately Fred and Ethel weary of being treated like hired hands instead of partners and storm out. 

Havana Restaurant Dining Room

Without the Mertzes know-how, the diner’s early success quickly dissipates.  Ricky continually confuses Lucy with incorrect diner jargon and Lucy messes up every order she gets.  The Mertzes return triumphantly to discover a completely empty diner.  When Ricky and Lucy refuse to agree to share the work, the fighting foursome decides to split the diner down the middle and see which couple brings in the most business.  Ricky and Lucy’s half retains the name “A Little Bit of Cuba” while Fred and Ethel’s half is sarcastically christened “A Big Hunk of America.”

Cuba Plates

Come to think of it, the only food I can recall being offered at Ricardo and Mertz restaurant was a hamburger and some cream pies (which predictably the Ricardos and Mertzes ended up tossing at one another).  Until discovering a Cuban restaurant outside of Boston some years later, I assumed Cuban food was the same as New Mexican food which was the same as Mexican food which was the same as Spanish food.  Obviously I didn’t equate the diversity of Latino American cuisine to breakfast tacos as a more enlightened public personality recently did.

Vintage Automobiles Are Integral to Cuban Culture

Aside from the food, what I recall most about my first experience at a Cuban restaurant was that thematically it centered around vintage American automobiles, the type of which are surprisingly common in the Albuquerque area.  Memories of that first experience with Cuban cuisine flooded back when we visited Havana Restaurant at the Daskalos Shopping Center in Albuquerque.  Olfactory memories were triggered by the distinct and delicious aromas of fried pork.  Then there were custom car plates depicting those beautiful and surprisingly pristine vintage American automobiles.

According to anywhere.com, “American cars were imported into Cuba for about 50 years, beginning near the early 20th century. After the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. embargo was erected and Castro banned the importation of American cars and mechanical parts. That’s why Cuba is the way it is today—essentially a living museum for classic cars. The old American autos are often kept running with parts and pieces that were never intended for them.”  “These days, there are around 60,000 classic American cars in Cuba. Experts estimate that about half of these cars hail from the 1950s, while 25 percent are from the 1940s and another 25 percent are from the 1930s. The cars are often family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.”

Left: Mango Shake; Right: Papaya Shake

There were no vintage automobiles parked in front of Havana Restaurant on the day of our inaugural visit.  Perhaps like us, the car owners arrived at the Daskalos Center and saw only a sign that read “Restaurant” not noticing that a somewhat smaller sign on the window did read “Havana.”  Havana Restaurant seems to be one of those restaurants that subscribes to the Will Rodgers axiom “Get someone else to blow your horn and the sound will carry twice as far.” Though Havana does have a Facebook page, it hasn’t been updated since 2011.  There are numerous online reviews that sing the praises of Albuquerque’s sole Cuban eatery.

Havana pays homage to the city which gave the habanero chile its name.  The chile used to feature heavily in trading in Cuba despite the fact that habanero chiles and other piquant peppers are rarely ever used in traditional Cuban cooking.  That’s something I discovered in Boston decades ago and perhaps the reason Cuban food has never been a favorite among Latin cuisines (back then, I was desperately missing New Mexico’s characteristically enchanted piquancy.)

Cuban Sandwich

15 July 2022: Predictably Havana Restaurant’s menu includes no entrees or appetizers which use New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile to imbue them with a piquant personality.  Instead, the menu is replete with porcine and beef products, plantains, rice and beans.  Specials of the day are listed on a small slate board.  Regardless of what you order to eat, make sure to wash it down with a batido, Cuban milkshakes in such delicious flavors as mango and papaya.  They’re packed with the refreshing flavors of the fruits from which they’re made.  Among the non-fruit batidos is the chocolate shake.  It’s just about the most chocolatey shake you’ll find in the Duke City area.

17 March 2023: Almost de rigueur when you visit a Cuban restaurant (and many American and sandwich restaurants) is the Cuban sandwich.  The “Cubano” as we know it today is a mash-up of Spanish and Italian ingredients with traditional Cuban ingredients.  That means lightly buttered Cuban bread; mild, smoked ham; roast pork marinated in a citrusy sauce; mustard and pickles.  That’s the way Havana prepares the island nation’s eponymous sandwich.  Not surprisingly it’s one of the very best you’ll find in New Mexico.   As a paramour of pungent and piquant flavors, Havana’s Cuban doesn’t have enough pickles or mustard, but that’s probably not a universal sentiment.

Palomilla (Marinated grilled steak with onions)

15 July 2022: Bistec de palomilla (meaning “butterflied beefsteak”), a Cuban dish consisting of beef round or cubed steak marinated in garlic, lime juice, salt and pepper then topped with pearlescent onions is a specialty of the house.  The “steak” itself is rather thin and just a bit tough, but it’s pretty tasty.  Best of all, it’s served with Moors and Christians, a rather unique sobriquet for a mix of rice and black beans seasoned with garlic, lime, cumin and aji pepper.  It’s surprisingly good.  The plate also includes maduros, sweet plantains that are only fried once (as opposed to tostones which are twice-fried).

17 March 2023: My Kim practically ran to the kitchen to order the special of the day, fried pork ribs, before I could do so.  Good move!  Though my arteries are clogging as I type this, fried pork ribs are a revelation, one we first discovered in the Mississippi Gulf Coast where everything edible is fried.  Health food this is not.  It should, instead, be a rare treat.  As we quickly found, every portion of the pork rib is fried–including the pork fat.  That fat is perhaps the most delicious (and certainly most unhealthy) part of the pork rib.  It’s crispy and delightfully mouth-watering with a pronounced saltiness.  Elsewise, these ribs are meaty and delicious–more than reason enough to return to Havana.

Pork Ribs

17 March 2023:  As of this writing there are 1,323 restaurant reviews on Gil’s Thrilling…  Those reviews are updated with every repeat visit.  You would think that with such a prolific record of pigging out, there would be numerous mentions of fricasseed food.  A quick search could turn up only two.  Does this mean fricassee has fallen out of favor?  Do chefs even know how to fricassee meats any more?  Do they even know what it means to fricassee?  Do you?  Fricassée is a dish where poultry or meat has been cut into pieces and stewed in a gravy or sauce.   The difference between a stew and a fricassee is that in a stew, ingredients are boiled.  In a fricassee, ingredients are smothered or pan-fried first, then boiled.

In the comments below our friend Lynn Garner described the chicken fricassee as “chicken freakin’ fabulous.”  Chicken fricassee was one of the daily specials when Lynn joined us for lunch during a wintery “two hour delay” snow day.   Another special was pork fricassee which both Lynn and I just had to try.  Medallions of pork were so tender they would have fallen apart with a cross look.  Those medallions were presented in a light tomato sauce broth seasoned with cumin, garlic, onion and green pepper.  The broth penetrated deeply into the pork, imbuing it with flavor and tenderness.  Pork fricassee is a Cuban favorite that would be a Cooking 101 exemplar of the rare culinary technique of fricassee. 

Pork Fricasse

29 June 2023: Milanesa bears a remarkable similarity to schnitzel (Germany),  chicken fried steak (Texas with a German influence) and veal Parmesan (Italian immigrants).   As is typical in culinary history, its origin is in dispute.  Several claimants contend Milanesa originated in their respective countries.  Regardless of origin, there’s no disputing that Milanesa is a very popular dish in everything from Mexican restaurants to sandwich joints, especially in Latin American countries.  It’s often referred to as Argentina’s unofficial national dish.  Milanesa is simply a thin slice of beef, chicken, fish, veal or pork sheathed in bread crumbs and fried.  

We’ve had numerous versions of Milanesa over the years, but surprisingly had never sampled a Cuban version.  Havana Restaurant’s version is your choice of pork or chicken topped with thinly sliced ham and melted shredded cheese and a single pineapple.  Pork was my choice.  For me it called to mind a pork Cordon Bleu sandwich (sans bread) thanks to the ham and cheese.  Perhaps because of the ham and cheese, we found the Milanesa very salty sandwich, making the pineapple a necessary element.  Frankly, the Milanesa would have been even better covered in pineapple chunks. 

Pork Milanesa

There are many reasons diners have been blowing Havana Restaurant’s horn. Even if it wasn’t Albuquerque’s only exclusively Cuban restaurant, it would probably be its very best.

Havana Restaurant
5331 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 830-2025
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 June 2023
1st VISIT: 15 July 2022
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cuban Sandwich, Palomilla, Fried Pork Chops, Mango Shake, Papaya Shake, Chocolat Shake, Pork Milanesa
REVIEW #1283

19 thoughts on “Havana Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Great tip, Collin. The chicken fricassee was chicken freakin’ fabulous! Tough decision when I wanted to order everything on the menu and each of the (four tempting) specials. Lovely couple taking good care of all of the diners in an extremely relaxing space. My companion commented that it was “a maximum ma and pa dining experience.” More appropriate in this case I think, mamá y papá. While trying to choose a fruit drink, I mentioned to mamá that I’d never even heard of a guanabana. She said oh, guanabana is very good. She inspires trust so I ordered it. It was very good, and next time I might just have her bring me what she recommends eating that day. Their prices were the final delightful surprise. Considering the food quality and portions, it was quite a bargain to this inflation weary foodie. The best part being it ensures that I can return frequently! Muchas gracias, Gil. I am so glad you found Havana Restaurant.

  2. I stopped in Friday on your recommendation. They had a chicken fricassee as their special. It was wonderful! I will definitely return.

  3. “Until discovering a Cuban restaurant outside of Boston some years later, I assumed Cuban food was the same as New Mexican food which was the same as Mexican food which was the same as Spanish food.”
    What??? As someone who has spent a lot of time in Spain I can assure you most Spanish people don’t have a clue what a Taco or Enchilada is. I think I may have seen one Mexican restaurant there, and it was closed. Spanish food isn’t Mexican food any more than it is Filipino food or any one of the other 15 former colonies it had. It is unbelievably good, my Spanish relatives say it has more variety than Italian or even French food. Most people seem to be serious foodies. You can walk into a Spanish truck stop and it may be better than the best restaurant in Albuquerque, things like rabbit in wine sauce, really good paella (never had a good one in the US), and super fresh seafood, etc.
    Being half Puerto Rican, I do appreciate Cuban food, it is very similar. One of the Columbia restaurants in many cities of Florida is a good place to try Cuban food.

    1. Paul, my confusion as to the foods of New Mexico, Mexico and Spain was based on having grown up in Penasco, New Mexico (some 39 years ago) and having had a very limited exposure to anything other than a Northern New Mexico diet. Though my education was very well rounded and otherwise excellent, culinary cultures were not part of the curriculum. You can probably tell I’ve made up for lost time, lost meals and culinary knowledge.

  4. Got a laugh out of “Obviously I didn’t equate the diversity of Latino American cuisine to breakfast tacos as a more enlightened public personality recently did.” Thank you; up to now I’ve mostly just been angry about it! Don’t forget to correct your pronunciation of bodega also. “Kim, I’m popping down to the BOdigga.” Waiting to see if you get into trouble for bringing politics into a food review again. 🤣

    1. Thank you, Lynn

      Contrary to previous accusations, my agenda isn’t political. I tend to pick on politicians because they’re always good for a ridiculous (usually inadvertent) quotes…followed by a quick retraction, apology and firing of the culpable speech writer. I’m also an equal opportunity insulter when it comes to politicians, but for some reason no one came to Donald Trump’s defense when I made fun of something he said or did.

      By the way, what is it about tacos that brings out the stupid in politicos? You might remember the phrase “taco trucks on every corner” was used by activist Marco Gutierrez, the co-founder of Latinos for Trump. In what planet would a taco truck on every corner be a bad thing?

      I’m happy you saw my observation in the humorous vein in which it was intended.

      1. Whenever such comments are made, I’m reminded of a certain infamous saying from the early days of SNL. Since this is a family blog I’ll just refer to it as how Dan Ackroyd began his debates with Jane Curtin. Sadly it’s been coming to mind a lot lately! As you pointed out, the best thing to do is just laugh.

  5. Ven guajira a escuchar los cantares de mi Cuba.
    Ven guajira a escuchar!! mama!! los cantares de mi Cuba.
    Ven guajira a escuchar!! los cantares de mi Cuba.
    En los campos de mi Cuba, donde se siembra la caña
    (Letra de Val Carretero)
    I was so excited to learn there was a Cuban restaurant in the area. I looked at the menu and thought that there really isn’t much here but there are a couple of interesting things and some strange choices. Why moros y christianos but not congrí (the universal rice dish)? It might be inexcusable that the food critic didn’t try the dish Cuba is most famous for o sea the Ropa Vieja???? Tostones are not really that common in Cuba but yes of course they exist. Maduros always and depending on where you are from on the island, the thin fried plantain chips are called mariquitas (as the menu does) or chicharita … which is what my family calls them. I’m dying to try the Cuban sandwich. I’ll just say, that there is controversy over whether the Cuban sandwich is even really Cuban. There is strong evidence that is was invented by Cuban immigrants in Tampa (they put salami on it which I don’t care for) and/or in Miami (the best ones in the world in my opinion). Poor Cuba, these days doesn’t have the ingredients to make a Cuban sandwich and the vast majority of Cubans have never had a decent one in their lives.

    1. Beautiful song! I especially love the humble farmer’s heartfelt belief that the countryside is Eden, more lovely than anywhere. Truth-teller, have you ever been to Cuba? I’d love to hear of your experiences.

      As many first-time visitors to a Cuban restaurant do, I had ropa vieja (old clothes) in the Boston area Cuban restaurant that introduced me to Cuban food. I’ve had ropa vieja at three other Cuban restaurants and have always been somewhat underwhelmed. It’s (perhaps to my detriment) my practice to try something I haven’t had before or something “different” (weird) when we visit new restaurants. Next time we visit Havana, it’ll be ropa vieja in hopes it’ll change my mind about this most famous of Cuban dishes.

      1. I’ve spent large amounts of time in Cuba, mainly in Matanzas province but also in Camaguey and La Habana. My cubanidad will definitely be impacted but really the Spanish and other Latin Americans really view Cuban cuisine (also Central America) as the weak sisters of the cocina latina. La comida criolla (the indigenous food of the people) is good … it really is but there is very little of something that blows you away. The signature dish of Cuba as stated before is Ropa Vieja but this dish comes from the Canary Islands and it is far better there in my opinion (it is also a dish of mainland Spain but we’ll give this one to the Canarians). Masas de Puerco Fritas are really good but this is hardly Michelin level fare. Rice and beans (moros or congri) with every meal. Plaintains with every meal. Yuca con mojo of course is really good …. but compare this food to almost anywhere else in the Spanish speaking world and it is just pretty plain. To further complicate the matter, the Cuban people have been suffering under a virulent dictatorship for many decades and so the island is impoverished and the food in general on the island is really really bad. The best Cuban food without a question is found in Florida.

        1. I am a native of Miami and grew up with Cuban restaurants. Don’t know how authentic, but they certainly were manned by Cubans. The in-demand dishes were roast pork (marinated in a citrusy mojito sauce), garlic chicken (same marinade), the Cuban sandwich and ropa vieja (perhaps). Most people went pork or chicken, covered in onions, the whole dish with a heavy citrus twang. White rice covered with black beans (or on the side) and then the plantains. This may be partly a local invention, as with “Chinese food” in NYC, can’t say. No doubt many Cuban restaurants do it differently (as with the reviewed Restaurant, which I like), but you can find that roast pork-garlic chicken formula in myriad places from Miami to Key West. If you’re in L.A., check out a restaurant doing this exact thing called Versailles. The book “Nuevo Cubano Cooking” has all of the recipes.

          I agree that for some weird reason it’s almost impossible to get a great Cuban sandwich outside of South Florida. The best I’ve had here in ABQ was at Canteen Brewery of all places. Guava Tree’s was OK.

          1. Hi Glenn,
            I was eyeing Gil’s photo of this restaurant’s Cuban sandwich and it looked pretty good. Do you not recommend it?
            Also, are you familiar at all with a chicken & vegetable dish kind of like a spicy Cuban chicken pot pie without the pastry? When I lived in Denver I frequented a wonderful place called Frijoles Colorado. It was run by Cuban immigrants via Miami. The chicken dish was a rare special as apparently it was very labor intensive. I can’t remember the name of the dish I loved. Unfortunately my friends shut down due to the Cabrona virus; we all thought they would be there forever.

            1. Haven’t tried the Cuban sandwich there, I get dinner. Keep meaning to try it. Don’t know of that chicken dish, sounds good. (A lot of the Cuban places of my experience have extensive menus, but I have trouble moving beyond the roast pork plate.) Somebody mentioned the Columbia restaurants of North Florida, I also recommend big time.

              1. The Cuban sandwich is very good, although I missed the potato sticks. The Havana sandwich — a delicious combination of beef and ham — did have the potatoes so next time I’ll ask. The sandwiches are huge! Another treat.

  6. Always got a kick out of this neighborhood place, known to us as simply “Restaurant.” Be sure to try the Cuban coffee, they do it right.

    1. I really like coffee, especially espresso. I think that the best coffee I’ve ever had out of a cafetera (the little stovetop espresso pots) have been by Cubans. Cubans are really wizards sometimes at the art of coaxing great flavor out of them. The methodology usually requires huge amounts of sugar and a strong wrist to “batir” the infusion so you get a nice crema. All that said, I’ll again severely compromise my cubanidad and just say that, in general, Cuban coffee, is just mediocre espresso. If you have ever had a great espesso pulled by an Italian (anywhere in the peninsula), you realize that there is Italy and then there is everywhere else. For one thing, they have great espresso machines. The little cafeteras just can’t compete. The second thing is that they have great coffee …. again, Cuba can’t compete. They do have some good coffee but seriously, it’s not really anything special. Cuba, in general, really isn’t primo coffee growing country.

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