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Taste of Havana Cuban Restaurant

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Major Mojo Revision A Cuban revolution for the taste buds Castro's rise to power caused a wave of Cuban immigration into south Florida, forever changing the culinary traditions of that state. Stone crabs met the ubiquitous mojo, a tart, garlicky sauce made with sour orange juice and olive oil, as common to Cuban tables as ketchup is to American ones. Although during the 1980s and 1990s Charlotte had become home to several Spanish and New World Latino restaurants, it wasn't until Carol Torrez and her now ex-husband opened La Gran Havana in the summer of 1998 that Charlotte had a spot to dunk crispy plantains into Cuban-styled mojo. But the past 6-1/2 years proved challenging to Nicaraguan native Torrez. She's relocated her restaurant into its third location, renamed it, and changed the structure of the kitchen management. Gone are the original cooks from Miami and the inconsistent crews she has had over the years. "I'm now the executive chef," she states. "I have people who listen to me and produce the food I want to produce. We are using my family's (Cuban) recipes." Today, she and her mother Basilia Valle own the 150-seat Taste of Havana Cuban Restaurant, which still resides on Albemarle Road -- one of its few consistencies. This location, once a wing bar, is scantily decorated. The tropical blue greens that bathed her other locations are gone. To the left of the entrance is a sterile private room. Thankfully, the large bar area in the back creates a more tropical atmosphere with brightly depicted beach wall murals. The main dining area, however, has a forlorn cabana sitting in front of a painted backdrop which does little to reorient the diner to a tropical environ. But if you succumb to Torrez' black bean soup, you'll return time and again. Black bean soup varies throughout the Caribbean, but my personal preference is toward the densely flavored soups of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Torrez excels at black bean soup. If black bean soup is the extent of your Cuban food knowledge, just remember that Cuba's cuisine is a combination of the cultures which live there. The Siboney, native Cubans, used native corn, peanuts, peppers and yucca; enslaved Africans brought plantains; and the Spanish added meat. Since Cuba is an island, seafood was a no-brainer add-on. Cuban food is not "hot, hotter, hottest" cuisine; in fact, the Cuban cachucha chili is as mild as a bell pepper. But the cuisine unabashedly loves garlic. Cuban dishes usually consist of five or six ingredients, one of them garlic. Some believe Cuban cuisine was stopped in its evolutionary path with the Castro administration, and that many dishes are stuck in a "Mambo day"/"Mafia king" time warp. After all, when was the last time you saw a croquette on a menu? The robust combination appetizer has enough food to satisfy a large tasting assemblage. Slender curves of the mariquitas, crispy fried green plantains, curled around succulent Cuban fried chicken drummettes and a satisfyingly mushy variant of a chicken croquette. On the other hand, the triangulated beef empanada, while deliciously crusted, lacked oomph. The best of this dish was the large mound of golden, crackling Latino tuber fries, known in Miami as Yucca fingers and served with a duet of sauces. Of course, you could stop there, but better dishes loom on the horizon. Instrumental to any Cuban restaurant is lightly crusted Pan Cubano. Cuban bread is especially essential for the celebrated Cuban sandwiches. Havana's grilled sandwich Cubano is an intricate construction of thinly sliced roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. Sandwiches remain on the menu all day. At lunch, many dinner entrees are offered as lunch specials for $6. Dinner entrees run the gamut from the soulful ropa vieja, shredded beef ($9), to a whole fried snapper with salsa ($19). The top entree dish is the thinly sliced, nicely charred at the edges house steak served with an herbaceous chimichuri sauce which is packed with garlic, parsley and olive oil. An entree not up to par was the too dry chicken asado. All entrees are served with a side of candy-sweet, luxuriant slices of golden fried ripe plantains, maduros. Just as banana bread is best when made from black-skinned fruit, maduros depend on age to bring out the sweetness in the plantains. These were luscious and quickly devoured. If you ordered black bean soup, expect more beans as an entree side. These are dense, stew-like and should be mixed with the mound of white rice, creating a dish known as moros, a shortening of moros y cristianos -- or the moors and the Christians, a charming Spanish historical note. The desserts were uneven. The sweetness of the natilla, a very rich egg custard, tended to overwhelm the creaminess. For a restaurant to maintain its stride while changing locations and names is difficult, but Torrez has met these challenges head on. In time, this spot may develop the same tropical aura her other locations had. For now, you can expect to find good, homespun Cuban dishes.

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