One of the table sauces at Havana Central is Goya’s green tabasco. It’s the cheap, industrial way for a Latin-American restaurant to go, but Goya’s green pepper stuff is pretty good.
Havana Central, one of a handful of inexpensive restaurants in the destination-dining zone between Union Square and the Flatiron Building, has the feel of a food factory. The room is long and narrow, and bare, brick walls make for a loud space. The lighting was definitely a professional job, maybe to remind tourists they’re still in Manhattan, or perhaps to assure Manhattanites that they’re not slumming.
The floor staff is mostly Latino, but only the chef is Cuban. The menu comes complete with original ideas like the paella bar–a build-your-own option–and pressed sandwiches. One might suppose that Havana Central is a franchise, and that this New York location is the latest expansion from a model that has succeeded elsewhere, like Florida. They also sell t-shirts and caps, contributing to the feel of a brand-building campaign. But that’s wrong. This place, with its mostly cheap prices, sporadically tasty meals and industrial feeling, is all ours.
Try the Cuban barbecued ribs ($12.50-$16.50), which come slathered in mango-ginger-habañero sauce. (Curiously, this worthy sauce is also available for purchase, despite being excused from duty as a tabletop condiment.) The meaty ribs are expertly charred, balancing the fruity sauce with a bitter bite.
Another winner is the Cuban sandwich, a bargain at $6.95. While not assembled with the loving touch of a humble little Cuban cafe, it’s easier to handle than what you’d get at one of those. A precision-grade sandwich press makes for sharp corners and evenly browned and crunchy toast, under which swiss cheese and mustard are melted just right. Smoked ham dominates the flavor, while abundant slices of roast pork provide the heft underneath. Think of it as the Cuban-American answer to a New York-style pizza-with-everything.
For a buck or two more, you can try a pressed chicken, turkey or steak-and-onions sandwich that comes with a side of sweet potato fries sliced thin enough to effectively bypass the limp orange-fry problem.
Much in the way that the Goya table sauce is at the top end of the packaged-food spectrum, so is the plate of empanadas ($5.75), which tasted a bit like tv-dinner pot pies. The chicken sofrito is the choice: it edges out the taco-ish beef picadillo and a broccoli-and-cheese with fresh broccoli.
The restaurant appears to go out of its way for vegetarians by flagging meatless options, but actually little effort is put forth. A vegetarian sampler plate ($7.95) has some decent eggplant and zucchini, but not all of the "fire-roasted" items were cooked all the way through. Why "fire-roast" when you have a grill onto which you can ostensibly place delicious vegetables? Because said grill was full of ribs, no doubt. Also, our waitress didn’t bring a promised side of mango-pineapple slaw. Once we reminded her, it became clear she’d been trying to save us from the bottom of the slaw barrel.
Also steer clear of the arroz con pollo ($7.95). The chicken was dry, and the beans and rice sub-par. And our special entree of red snapper in wine and herb sauce ($16.95) confirmed that Havana Central is the type of restaurant that must be used correctly. The snapper’s sauce was muscular, and served only to mask the fish, which I suspect was the special only because the kitchen needed to get rid of it. Not an unusual tactic for Saturday night in a tourist district, but still inexcusable.
The pitcher of champagne sangria ($26) drew no complaints. There are also port, shiraz, Spanish red, Spanish white and rose varieties that come without the piles of fruit. (If you like your sangrias like that, try the premier versions available at the East Village tapas restaurant Alphabet Kitchen.) Along those lines, the "classic" mojito ($7.95) was tasty and struck a harmonious chord, despite a glaring lack of fresh, muddled mint. At the very least, every specialty drink comes with a stalk of juicy sugarcane.
The most clever part of Havana Central’s packaging is undoubtedly the location: It faces no direct competition from other quick, real and reasonable restaurants. Even accounting for the two or three misfires, Havana Central offers 10 times the value found along the nearby Park Ave. South slop strip.
Uncle Nick’s Ouzaria
Up in the true land of the quick, real and reasonable, the corporate atmosphere of Havana Central isn’t even an option. Judging from a recent experience, it must be hard to dine on 9th Ave. in Hell’s Kitchen and not be served by the owner of the restaurant. Of course, there are a few little empires growing up here.
One is Uncle Nick’s, whose fare was voted "Best Greek Food" by New York Press readers in our 2001 poll. The cozy sit-down place for grilled fish and meats in the $15-entree range has since expanded into the more casual Ouzaria next door.
The newer restaurant is primarily a bar with some food available–mostly tapas-like plates and combo platters of dishes from Uncle Nick’s proper. Regulars will be pleased to learn that the popular stunt dish of flaming cheese makes appearances in the Ouzaria regularly, singeing eyebrows while waiters shout "Opa!"
Since I wanted to remember what my dinner tasted like–and I was with a friend discussing the war–I decided to skip the ouzo. We instead stuck to Greek lager, which tastes suspiciously like every other beer from every other country I’d never had a beer from before. They’re probably all coming out of the same basement brewery in Istanbul.
For $7.95, the Ouzaria serves hot pita with all four of Uncle Nick’s Greek dips. Melitzanosalata earned the most dips by far, thanks to robust eggplant and a mysterious herbal seasoning. The fish-roe taramosalata wasn’t as fluffy as fresh-whipped mayo like it’s supposed to be, but it tasted fine. As did the garlic-potato skordalia, which was a little too cold. Tangy, refreshing tzatziki was second best, portending more yogurt delights to come. The pitas themselves were fantastic, lent a minutes-from-the-oven crispness courtesy of Uncle Nick’s grill.
And about that grill. I’m of the opinion that grilling and serving whole, fresh fish isn’t a big deal, as evidenced by countless villages and cities on the Mediterranean that do it every day. New York, too, is a seaside town, but every place that grills whole fresh fish here makes a big deal of it. They add fancy sides or sauces and charge upwards of $14.95. I had hoped that Uncle Nick’s Ouzaria, unpretentious as the place is, would buck this trend, but it’s no different.
At least the cooks know what they’re doing. You could do much worse than the grilled zucchini and eggplant that come on the Ouzaria’s overflowing assorted tapas platter ($19.95). The strips of chicken breast were crisscrossed with grill marks yet remained juicy, but though the butterflied shrimp were beautiful, the little critters had zero flavor. Plentiful chunks of wine-sauteed Greek sausage were the consolation prize, as were the fat green olives.
A vinegary bean salad with full-flavored gigantes and imported feta pushed the quality of the platter toward the high end, while the cold, chewy calamari and sliced black olives–from a can?–brought everything down a notch. An additional plate of grilled octopus ($7.95) was ordered in an attempt to lift our spirits, but it arrived with that unique octo-ability to hold a marinade’s flavor in its tender fat. A couple of pieces were too gummy to consume, which, together with the most toothsome tentacles earned the dish an overall rank of standard.
It’s easy to see why Uncle Nick’s baked desserts are a hit with the hoi polloi: they’re industrial-strength and economy-sized. The baklava ($2.50) approximates the size and mass of a brick. (And it’s about as delicate.) Custard creme wrapped in filo (galacto bouriko, $3) also demonstrates corner-cutting on the pastry, with all the evidence buried in cinnamon and nutmeg.
Given those, yiaourti ($3) was a big surprise. Uncle Nick’s homemade yogurt is as thick as cream cheese, and it was complemented here by a very light, though not-too-subtle, floral honey. This classic combination demonstrated the casual sort of greatness that Greek food should convey. There’s a feeling that you’re experiencing something loved by many for a long time. And that has become very hard to find.