The Old Havana: Probably better than the new one

The Old Havana Cuban Restaurant is something of an enigma from start to finish. First off, the outside just does not give any indication of what the restaurant will be like. Most restaurants on Centre street, in fact all of the ones I have been to so far, have had large windows that give you an open view of the inside, allowing me to make all of the snap judgments I want. Not so with Old Havana. The exterior looks as though the building was once a house that has since been converted into a restaurant, with small windows that only give passersby a brief glimpse into the interior.

The mysterious exterior of The Old Havana
The mysterious exterior of The Old Havana

But my friend Davis and I are stepping into the mystery. While the outside looks rather blasé, the inside gives an entirely different impression. It’s clean (more than can be said of most of the previous places I’ve been on Centre street) and has a strange but smooth blend of modern lighting and vintage decoration. The walls have big mirrors and white and burgundy tiles. Immediately, Davis says, “I like it! It’s very spacious.”

I have been less than excited about this destination, but upon entering, I become considerably more optimistic. We are told to find a seat where ever we’d like. The place is pretty empty, so we choose a high table over by one of the windows. The waitress approaches.

I jump in, “What’s your favorite?”

She pauses and thinks. Maybe she’ll actually give me an answer on the first try! But is that too much to ask?

“The shredded beef is really good, and also the shrimp.” Success!

“Ooo, I like shrimp,” I reply. “That’s pretty good?”

“Oh, yes, we have it spicy or not spicy in a Creole sauce, and it’s…” She makes a gesture that convincingly suggests that fantastic flavor awaits me. I order the spicy version. She asks how I want the rice and beans. I ask her to have it made however she would personally have it. As I hand her the menu, I glance down and see an item with shrimp and Creole sauce—$22. Yikes. I’m committed, but that’s not a small amount of money. Most of the other options are between $12 and $14. I hope it’s amazing.

Davis gets the shredded beef, which is apparently also in a Creole sauce. Now, I don’t really know what defines Creole sauce, but I can’t think of any times that I’ve eaten something with “creole” in the name and not enjoyed it. Plus, there’s shrimp. I am a very big fan of shrimp. Shrimp is like the seafood version of bacon. And yes, I have made bacon-wrapped shrimp. I wept from delight.

The food comes out. Upon a large plate sits a smaller oval dish that contains the shrimp and accompanying sauce. Also on the plate are some fried plantains and a heap of black beans and rice. The plate is delivered with a bowl over the beans and rice, which is then removed. I didn’t understand why at first, but almost immediately the hemispherical mound begins to collapse.

Shrimp in spicy creole sauce
Shrimp in spicy creole sauce

I take a bite of Davis’s dish (not pictured…sorry). It’s slightly spicy, and the beef is very tender and juicy. Davis expresses the sentiment that shredded beef and rice are not wildly exotic, with which I agree, but it’s still pretty good.

But my dish, oh my. It is truly delicious. The sauce, which is different from the sauce used for the shredded beef, is very flavorful. It’s got a tomato base with an amazing mixture of spices. There is definitely a spicy kick, but it’s not really as spicy as I’d have liked. The shrimp is mixed in with chopped onions, peppers, and green olives. I take a couple bites with the olives and decide I don’t like those very much.

The baked plantains are similar to those from Yely’s Coffee Shop, crunchy on the outside and starchy on the inside. Practically no flavor. The beans and rice are pretty standard. I mix the sauce with the shrimp and plantains a bit, but I don’t like doing that too much because I feel like the beans distract from rather than augment the flavor of the sauce, which is something I want to savor as much as possible.

So this dish is really pretty amazing. But for $22? It’s not that amazing. I was really expecting something more intricate, maybe even bigger. I mean, the portions are not small, especially with the rice, but given that my dish is essentially just a shrimp version of what Davis got, I’m at a loss as to how it’s $22. Shrimp isn’t that expensive. But I try to push that from my mind and enjoy the meal. I do enjoy the meal, certainly, but to be honest, the price is a bit inhibiting.

After the meal, I decide to order one of their milkshakes. I ask the girl what her favorite is. She says she has two favorites: Papaya and parcha (passionfruit). “It’s a little bit sour,” she says of the parcha shake. “We put sugar in it, but it’s still a little sour. Some like it with water, but I prefer it with milk.” I don’t really like papayas, so I order the parcha milkshake.

It does turn out a bit tart, but it’s also sweet. Good flavor, but I’m not crazy about passionfruit, I guess. Davis asks a very insightful question: “Would you get it again?” Probably not. I’d try something else next time.

What about the shrimp? It is really good, but I can’t justify the $22. We get the check, and I get a surprise. My dish, which is apparently called Shrimp Diabla, is only $13.95! My entire perspective is changed, going from good but too expensive to delicious and very affordable. You bet I would get this again!

With the check comes some Asian hard candies (I say Asian because they have what I believe were Chinese characters on the packaging, though they could have been Japanese or Korean). So the mystery continues. This Cuban restaurant with sneaky pricing also gives out Chinese candies. Why? Some questions were never meant to be answered.

As we leave, I can’t help but ask the workers about this magnificently old contraption they have.

Clockwise from top left: cash register, record player, television, and radio, all very vintage.
Clockwise from top left: cash register, record player, television, and radio, all very vintage.

There’s an old register on top of this big, polished, wooden box. The woman opens up various compartments to reveal an old radio, record player, and television. Incredible! The brand is RCA Victor, which is, according to Wikipedia, the second oldest recording company in U.S. history, after Columbia Record. She tells me the radio still works, and so does the TV, though she only gets static. The record player needs a new needle. And she bought this thing at a garage sale. I don’t know what she paid for it, but I would bet it’s worth a very pretty penny.

Old Havana, you are a mystery, but you are a wonderful mystery. And one thing about you is not mysterious at all. Your food is wonderful, and that’s just all there is to it.

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