The bowl of cilantro garlic sauce had just been replenished at our table, it seemed, less than five minutes before, yet it was empty again.
No problemo. Our server deftly deposited a third serving of the condiment, wedging it between the brochetas de gambas (shrimp stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, $15) and the mariquitas de platanos (crispy fried plantains, $6) on the table.
We were just getting started at Havana Bar & Grill and I didn’t want our meal to ever end.
For those, too, whose appetites for Cuban food skew insatiable and know few bounds, this month-old Arlington restaurant is a game-changer.
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It certainly is for its owners and general manager, a trio of Cuban emigres — two of whom moved to North Texas recently from New Jersey — eager to share the nuances of their homeland’s food and to celebrate the cuisine in dynamic fashion.
On two visits, everything we had was startlingly authentic — as if it were made in executive chef Miguel Mendez’s grandmother’s kitchen in Cuba — from the arroz moro to the crispy yuca fries, the latter of which we kept dipping, and dipping once again, into that intense garlic dip. Who knows how many cloves were used to make it; all I know is you might wake up the next morning and still be able to ward off vampires.
This is about the only remotely negative criticism I can offer regarding Mendez’s stellar food and general manager Roberto Llama’s superb service.
A bright, festive dining room, quirkily decorated with photographs of Cuba and a lone disco ball, and the peppy, Pandora’d tunes of Cuban big-band leader Benny Moré set the stage for your experience, but the extensive menu dictates where your taste buds will travel.
Be sure to make room and save time (it takes 50 minutes to make) to order the paella ($60), a showstopper that easily feeds four hungry diners. Studded with green olives and anointed with a yellow red-pepper ring-garnish, the fragrant rice is rife with tomatoes, onions and garlic, and topped with mussels, scallops, shrimp, squid and lobster, making for a dreamy, heady dish. Served in a large ceramic bowl, it is a Cuban spin on the traditional pan-cooked Spanish version.
But we couldn’t just try one entree; that would be tantamount to, well, treason. So, we moved along to the succulent ropa vieja ($14.95), a stewish dish of shredded flank steak bedecked with tomatoes, onions and peppers — ¡excelente!—and the bistec de palomilla ($17.95), a thin steak covered in sauteed onions, which we ordered served with black bean soup, moro rice and fried plantains.
Those plantains, slightly crispy, mixed with the creamy, rich black beans, atop a piece of tender steak, with a few strands of caramelized onions? That bite qualifies as my favorite from all of the places I’ve reviewed in 2016.
A strong statement, but one that merely matches the brilliant food at Havana Bar & Grill.
Havana Bar & Grill
- 3701 S. Cooper St., Arlington
- Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday