Monday, March 2, 2009

Authentic Cuban at Habana Libre

As part of a run into the city on an errand the other day, the family and I decided to try much-lauded Cuban spot Habana Libre for a quick lunch.

It was good, but not great.

We liked the appetizers that we ordered; a couple types of empanadas, croquettas, and platanos maduros (deep fried slices of ripe plantain). While tasty, we thought the portions were a bit small for the price and when we asked for sour cream with the fried plantains, they said they don't offer it. Now, I'm no expert on Cuban food, but I've always thought that sour cream is the traditional accompaniment to fried ripe plantains. When I was cooking at Nacional 27, we got plenty of Cuban regulars, who would often order this dish as a special off-menu request, and it was a given that we served it with sour cream. Hm. No matter, since the garlicky oil that they served with everything sufficed.

The sandwiches, however, are the real draw here. Huge, stuffed with great-tasting authentic fillings (read; pork), and served on really fresh, crackly french bread. Although I did want to try it, we passed on the jibarito, and went with a pan con lechon and a cubano.

Both were completely great, enormous, and a total bargain at six bucks apiece. If I worked anywhere near this place, I'd be there everyday.

The pan con lechon (bread with whole roast suckling pig) is a reasonable facsimile of its namesake. It didn't appear to be filled with real pulled suckling pig, but what I believe was shoulder meat was flavorful and moist, although it got even better when I drizzled some of the aforementioned garlic oil over the whole works.

The cubano, was, I thought, the real star. This thing was just stuffed with great-tasting, moist roast pork loin, ham, cheese, mustard, and pickles. The fillings were good and plentiful, with the pickles and mustard doing a great job of cutting through the richness of the pork and cheese, but what made this sandwich great was the bread. I don't know where they're getting their bread, and I'm not well-versed enough to parse the differences between real, authentic Cuban bread (made with lard) and a good quality French baguette, but, honestly, with the bread situation as bad as it is in Chicago, I'm not really going to split hairs. This was really good fresh bread. Crackly crispy on the outside, and very tender, soft, and great fresh bread flavor inside. A good sandwich served on really great bread is not an easy thing to find. Even harder to find one that fills you up for six bucks. This is the appeal, in my opinion, of Habana Libre.

Even better, they take this good bread, stuffed full of good pork products, and do the traditional cubano press on it. It arrives glistening with oil (I assume it's more of that garlic oil), nicely flattened and toasted crispy on both sides thanks to the pressing. It doesn't appear that they used a panini press, since there were no lines on the bread, so I'm guessing that they're toasting these things on a flat top griddle under a hot saute pan or a grill press.

Seriously--take a look at that thing. It's a work of art.

There was one very unpleasant part of this lunch, although it had nothing to do with the restaurant itself. My wife decided that it was my turn to change the baby and that she needed to be changed right now. Why this was so urgent, I have no idea, but sometimes it's better to just nod, smile, and do what your wife is telling you to do. I sensed this was one of those times, although I was fairly daunted at the prospect of changing a baby in the bathroom. I was guessing they didn't have one of those nice roomy "family restrooms" or even a changing station. I was correct.

The men's bathroom was, as is expected in a small, independently owned restaurant, very small. It was clean enough, but there was just a sink and a toilet, so me and the car seat were a tight squeeze, so I had no real other choice but to change the baby on the floor, jamming myself into a tiny space between the door and the base of the toilet. It was going ok until my leg cramped up in the middle of the whole operation, plus the kid kept trying to roll over and grab the door-stopper spring thing. Shades of the airplane bathroom scene from Tommy Boy. Wow. Not good. I slapped a new diaper on the kid as fast as I could and pried myself out of there.

My wife promptly split the scene to go feed the baby in the car and Henry and I stayed behind and took care of the bill while enjoying a Cuban coffee and a coconut flan. It was kind of a pricy lunch for the three of us (around fifty bucks, after tip), but we ordered quite a bit in order to try a lot of different things. They did charge us two bucks each (if I recall correctly--can't find a copy of the menu online) for cans of Diet Coke, which seemed a bit over the top, but now that we've been and know the deal, we could easily get out of there with a really excellent lunch for eight bucks a person.

All in all, I give this place high marks. I love the small independent vibe of the place, the service was attentive and competent, and the food--particularly the sandwiches--was really quite good and an excellent deal.

I'd certainly go back, or, more likely, stop in for a few sandwiches to take home. If you're nearby, or want to check out some Cuban food, I recommend giving this place a try.

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