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Classic Cubano

Homey new Cuban spot makes the most of its meats

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Havana Road Cuban Café

8 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson, [410] 494-8222,

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Saturday night at Havana Road Cuban Café looks something like this: Folks lean across scant aisle space to see what’s on their neighbors’ plates, bottles of wine are shared among strangers, children color at tables piled high with dishes slick with black beans and scattered with yellow rice, the front entryway and back register area fill up with potential diners, and the soundtrack to Buena Vista Social Club plays on repeat.

“It smells like home,” a young, dark-haired man tells his companions as they wait for a table.

“I love this sauce!” a seated woman exclaims to proprietress Marta Ines Quintana while pointing to her plate. It’s her grandmother’s recipe for garlic sauce that she brought from Cuba, Quintana explains: “That recipe’s over a hundred years old!”

Quintana’s family left Cuba for Florida in 1962, and decades later, with a successful career in sales and marketing behind her, she decided to make a living with the culinary skills she learned as a child from her grandmother and parents. She began with Cuban Tapas Catering and continues with Havana Road, and it’s the melding of tradition, family, and classic recipes that makes the café such a pleasurable, homey place to have a meal. Sure, the restaurant is a storefront, but it’s a storefront with walls painted the color of citrus fruit. Hulking cold cases plastered with soda logos sit back near the kitchen, but on the tables, clear glass vases bulge with fresh flowers. Neither the food nor the surroundings are fancy, but the staff treats you like you’re a regular, even if this is your first visit.

A compact menu heavy on beef and pork dishes makes ordering fairly easy. (Do you want the Santiago ropa vieja or the classic Cubano? Yes and yes.) Sandwiches and entrées are the clear highlights; the latter come with Cuban rice, marble-dark black beans, and plantains sautéed until they nearly caramelize. Each side makes as apt a foil for the ropa vieja ($13.50), long threads of beef, meltingly tender and bound together with a tart tomato sauce, as for the one seafood dish on the menu, nicaro arroz con camarones ($14). Here, curly pink shrimp circle a mound of rice redolent of garlic and dotted with peas. It’s a beautiful dish both in color and flavor, and everyone at the table, including a picky 2-year-old, couldn’t stop themselves from digging in. Cienfuegos fricase de pollo ($13), chunks of chicken breast in a thick gravy spiked with beer, roasted red peppers, and more garlic, tastes like something you would make in your own kitchen. It is homey in the most appealing way.

Then there is the classic Cubano sandwich ($8.50), which may just be the best around town. The ingredients to a Cuban are basic: roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle relish, and mustard. But the pork here is slow-roasted, sexy soft without being mushy, and flavorful enough to go up against your favorite barbecue joint’s pulled pork sandwich. (In fact, the pork shows up again in the Holguin pulled pork sandwich with barbecue sauce.) The roll is crisp without being dry and crumbly, and the whole sandwich gets a boost from mojo, Cuba’s zesty onion, garlic, and lime sauce. It is a goddamn good bite, served with plantain chips.

Havana Road also offers soup, including black bean and Manzanillo garbanzo bean stew, though if you’re going to order entrees, this might be a surplus of beans for one meal. Appetizers are simple, mostly dip-based, with a trio of hummuses (red, black bean, and “Cuban”; $6) and the Bayamo dip trio ($6), which includes a thick, tomato-based Cuban salsa, mojo, and pepino, which our server accurately compared to tzatziki. All the dips are served with not quite enough bread slices to scoop up every bite (another order of bread, the server warns us, is an extra $2), and while they are pleasant, I’d rather save room and order a plate of feather-light yucca fries ($3.50) with dinner.

Desserts we tried suffered from the more-is-more notion. A perfectly decent pan-American freedom flan ($6) would be better, and less sweet, if it wasn’t drizzled with fruit sauce; ditto for the Miami coconut flan ($6) spattered with chocolate sauce.

Be warned that an evening at Havana Road is paced leisurely. While service aims to please, the wait between ordering and receiving a meal can be substantial, particularly on a weekend night when the restaurant is packed with both diners and folks waiting for tables (reservations are a must on these nights). Still, those who have patience will be paid richly in pork, garlic, and hospitality.

Havana Road Cuban Café is open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. BYOB.

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