Boy, did Havana Grill take their sweet old time opening. I'm not sure what the roadblocks were, but I'd mentioned seeing their signage back in June. Still, I was intrigued to finally see them open about a month ago.
The shop is one of those "fast-casual" type places; you order at the counter, take number and have a seat. The restaurant was still in it's soft-opening phase when I visited, so I can understand the rather slow delivery of some of my orders and that some of the items; specifically the mojo was a bit different on my visits. I will say this; the staff is very friendly.
My adventures started with the Ropa Vieja - "old clothes", the classic Cuban shredded beef dish. Not cheap at $13.
This was probably the best version of this dish I've had in San Diego. The beef was perfectly toothsome, but not tough and overly stringy. The flavor was mellow, but the brininess of the capers and olives lifted the dish. The beef flavor was present and the sodium level low. Of all the items I had, it was the black beans that made an impression; sweet-salty-beany, cumin lurking in the background; the texture of the beans was nice, and it was neither too runny or too mushy. The really nice guy named Alex, told me that their recipe uses 17 ingredients. I bought a side order for the Missus who really enjoyed it.
The mojo had a bit too much oil and not enough citrus or garlic flavor for me.
The plantains....were plantains...... just being their sweet ol' selves.
During my meal, Alex told me that Havana Grill baked their own bread. So you know what I had to try, right?
On my next visit, I went with the El Cubano ($10), the hot pressed Cubano Sandwich. I was surprised at the amount of nicely fried plantain chips when I opened my container.
I actually enjoyed this sandwich....and the plantain chips.
The weak link to most Cubanos for me is the roast pork, which tends to be dry and tasteless....the "other white meat". The pork here had decent pork flavor. And combined with ham (salty-savory), the Swiss cheese (milky goodness), the pickles (crunch and a slight sweet-brine), and the mustard, this was pretty darn good. The bread didn't look like much, but actually had some nice flavor and held up fairly well after being pressed.
I had asked for a recommendation for my next visit when I ordered my sandwich and was told to try either the Bistec or the Havana Chicken Sandwich. I ended up getting both during my next two visits.
The Bistec ($14) is basically shredded beef and could have used a bit more of a sear to enhance the texture, it was also cold in the middle.
The black beans were as good as on my previous visits. This time around; the mojo had some punchy garlic and perhaps a bit too much salt, but not enough citrus for my taste. Still it was needed to add some oomph to the beef.
On my most recent visit I tried the Havana Chicken Sandwich ($9).
On the good side; this wasn't a shrinking violet when it came to flavor, lots of garlic-citrus tomes and perhaps teetering on the edge of being too salty. The onions did quite well, but the sandwich also seemed a bit greasy. Also, the pounded chicken breast was a bit on the dry side. The menu said that the sandwich was dressed with watercress, but I found none. I think the crunch and slight bitter-peppery flavor would have been a nice addition to the sandwich. I like the roll, which seems simple, but reminds me of a good solid French style roll which is great for "dipping".
I enjoyed my visits to Havana Grill, the folks are very friendly, and the place seems like a work in progress. It seems that homestyle recipes are being adapted for restaurant use and systems are still being put in place. The fact that Havana Grill is close to work means that I'll keep visiting on those days when I need a change of pace. I hope they keep up the nice service and get their recipes and systems in line. There also seems to be items on the menu; the empanadas come to mind that really won't do well being cooked ahead and placed under heat lamps. Hopefully all of that will shake out in time. Oh, and I hope they dial in the mojo......
5450 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego, CA 92117
Open Daily 11am - 9pm