By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Like chicken emitting its aroma from a rotisserie, there’s something wildly intoxicating about the smell of pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, when layered between two elongated slices of fluffy baguette bread and put into a hot grill press.
It’s the tangy scent that greeted us when stepping into Havana 1920, a second-floor restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter belonging to a trilogy of eating and drinking establishments themed to the Roaring ’20s on the same plot of land (El Chingon alongside and Prohibition Liquor Bar underneath).
Our noses were hit by Cubano sandwiches in the making, one of many Cuban-inspired dishes you mustn’t leave here without trying.
My best benchmark for the sandwich dates back to those I’ve consumed in Tampa, Florida’s Ybor City district, where some say the construct originated a century ago among Cuban immigrants. Others I’ve tried in San Diego restaurants, of which I’ll spare naming, have been disastrous.
This was done right, starting with Cuban bread imported from a Miami bakery. The two layers of meat — ham and roasted pork — were of tender, tasty quality. The lightly brined dill pickles were sliced thin and the yellow mustard seeped gently into the melted Swiss.
Diced ham dallied with béchamel sauce in a couple of croquetas representing Havana street food. They were like fondue balls. In the same appetizer bowl was a mushroom-spinach-cheese empanada boasting a buttery pastry shell, and a papa rellena de carne involving mashed potatoes, ground beef and bell peppers rolled into a sphere and fried to a golden crisp. All were rich and excellent, and the menu allows you to order them individually.
Leading to the rear bar stocked with numerous types of rum are displays of precious Cuban memorabilia such as society magazines from the 1920s, old Havana telephone directories and original mini Bacardi rum bottles.
A playlist of Cuban music (until live music starts later in the evening) is played at a comfortable volume. And swift waiters donning guayabera shirts and slinging minty mojitos made with fresh-squeezed sugarcane adds a lively, cultural feel to the place.
The goal of Havana 1920, launched a couple months ago by GBOD Hospitality Group, was to bring Hemingway’s Cuba back to life. But that’s perhaps a tall order in the absence of cigar smoking and tropical heat.
The effort is nonetheless wonderfully sincere and aided gastronomically by chef Anthony Parras, who is of partial Cuban descent. His additional menu offerings include three different preparations of plantains, a sprightly Caribbean-style salad with grilled pineapple, and a few other sandwiches featuring one named after Cuban socialite Elena Ruz. That captures turkey, cream cheese and strawberries on a sweet Cuban roll.
We were particularly lured by a pleasing appetizer of jumbo shrimp in garlic and white wine as well as two classic entrees: lechon asado (marinated pulled pork) and ropa vieja (shredded beef with peppers and onions in thick tomato sauce). Both of the main courses came with moist white rice and black beans cloaked in a savory non-spicy liquid.
The flavors of onions, cumin and black pepper emerged from the pork, which tasted similar to carnitas but herbier. The beef in comparison was much sweeter, due to the cooked-down tomato sauce and possibly some sherry in the recipe. Having never been to Cuba, I can’t vouch whether either dish comes close to the real deal. But we were smitten nonetheless by their moderate depth of flavor.
We skipped dessert (flan, mango sorbet or guava-banana turnovers) in lieu of nursing our mojitos as well as a “Painkiller” made with Pusser’s British Navy Rum and ravishing house-made coconut cream infused with pineapple juice.
With Cuban food in short supply locally, the restaurant gives consumers a slightly broader understanding of the nuances and intricacies behind this celebrated cuisine, not to mention a damn good Cubano sandwich.
Despite the fleeting bars and restaurants that have breezed through this address and others around it over the past decade, I have a hunch Havana 1920 might show some longevity.
Note: Live Cuban-Caribbean music is held seven nights a week, starting at 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and at 8:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.