Wearing a white guayabera shirt and black pants, our waitress delivers a menu decorated with a photo of Desi Arnaz talking on the phone while Lucy soaks her feet in a washtub. The text beneath the photo says, "The Little Havana: A Taste of Cuba in Houston."
A vertical arrangement of tropical fruit on the gleaming white bar looks like Carmen Miranda's hat. The bartender borrows from the overflow of pineapples and bananas to make smoothies, while the barista cranks out tiny cups of Cuban coffee. The walls are bright white, the concrete floor the color of café au lait. Arica palms curve over venetian blinds in the plate-glass shopping center windows. And a very bad painting of brightly colored parrots graces one wall.
We order chewy, sweet, fried plantain slices and some bland fried oblongs called croquettes for appetizers. A basket of toasted garlic bread is included gratis. I have a Corona, but my buddy, the intrepid chowhound Jay Francis, goes for the unusual (as usual): a guanabana smoothie, made with water rather than milk. We argue about what guanabana is, exactly. Francis thinks it's guava, but the menu includes a dessert made with guava, which is translated "guayaba." So guanabana must be something else. (It turns out to be what we call soursop in English.) The thick fruit drink comes in a parfait glass. He thinks it tastes like strawberries. It reminds me of the slick part in the middle of a banana. We both agree it tastes muy sabroso in a smoothie.
Our waitress, whose name is Belqui, recommends the classic Cuban dinner, ropa vieja. The name means "old clothes," and the dish of long-cooked beef in tomato sauce is soft and falling apart into shreds. It's also nicely studded with bell peppers. The entrées are served with rice, your choice of red or black beans, which come in a separate bowl, and more fried plantains. I like the musky flavor of the black beans, which I mix with my rice, a combination known as moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) in Cuba.
I ask Belqui if there are any tomatoes in the sauce that comes with the other entrée we ordered, a fork-tender fricase de pollo, which the menu translates as "chicken creole." A creole sauce usually includes tomato and green peppers, but I don't see any. In fact, I can't make out the ingredients of this brown sauce. She says she thinks it's just onions and chicken broth, or at least that's the way she makes it. But she isn't Cuban, she's Colombian. The way she describes the sauce makes her sound like a pretty good cook, so I ask her if she can make the Colombian chicken soup ajiaco. She can.
"Will you marry me?" I ask her.
"Sure," she says.
"That may be the shortest courtship in history," says Francis.
We try the tres leches cake and an order of flan for dessert with a café cubano. I've eaten so many versions of tres leches cake in the last few years that I barely remembered what the sweet, milk-oozing original tasted like. The Little Havana's tres leches is the real thing: white cake soaking wet with three kinds of milk, including the sweetened, condensed kind. It's the perfect accompaniment to a well-made cup of espresso. The flan is equally attention-getting; instead of the usual light, slippery custard, this one is rich and dense.
"You better give me your phone number if we're going to get married," I tell Belqui when she brings the check.
"Well, actually, I have a boyfriend," she says with a smile. Francis makes some comment about the fleeting nature of love, and I pay up. Even though Belqui has dumped me, I am smitten with The Little Havana.
Our relationship is strained on my second visit. The Cubano is not a very endearing version of the traditional pressed sandwich. There's nothing wrong with the ham, roast pork or cheese inside, or even the toasting technique; it's the bread I'm bored with. The soft-crusted, fine-textured sandwich roll tastes a lot like Wonder bread. The squishy roll can't stand up to the toasting press, and the sandwich comes out about as thick as my wallet -- before payday.
I like my Cubanos a little tougher, a little crustier. But the white-bread version appears to be very popular with the mostly Latino clientele, so evidently my taste in Cubanos is not widely shared. Belqui recommends the chicken soup, which is loaded with dark meat and very thin noodles. It's okay, but I bet her Colombian ajiaco is better.
Belqui's not around on my third visit, but the owner is. The vibrant Cuban woman named Gladys Abelenda comes over to greet a couple at the next table. The Little Havana is wonderfully age-integrated, simultaneously a boisterous family restaurant and a rendezvous for well-dressed adults. Many in the predominantly Latin American crowd seem to know each other, and there's a lot of table-hopping and cheek-kissing. After Abelenda leaves the couple, I quiz them about her. It turns out that Abelenda started the Café Miami on Bissonnet back in the mid-1980s but sold it around 1990. Now she's in the restaurant business again, and Cuban-food lovers are coming from all over town to welcome her back.
But on this Sunday afternoon, I've already started taking The Little Havana for granted. When I order huevos, café con leche y pan from the all-day breakfast section of the menu, I expect the coffee to come immediately. Instead, the whole breakfast is delivered together. It's difficult to believe that it costs only $2.79. Still, the scrambled eggs are plain, and the toasted Wonder rolls are boring. The free garlic toast comes in handy, though, spicing up the otherwise bland plate of eggs. I also order a mamey batido (shake) made with water; the tropical fruit tastes like starchy apricot.
The banality of the eggs and toast is more than redeemed by the excellent café au lait and the exotic mamey drink. (Mamey, or mamey sapote, I learn on the Internet, is a large tropical fruit of Central American origin with a brown skin and a giant seed.) It seems that each tropical fruit smoothie at The Little Havana is more interesting than the last. And there are still several unfamiliar fruits left for me to try: maracuya, trigo, mora
The fruits, juices and smoothies make this a great place for breakfast, and I'm looking forward to going back at dinnertime to try the stuffed eye of beef round and the bacalao (a dried cod dish). But it's The Little Havana's desserts that I find irresistible. Of course, these dulces might also be considered breakfast, brunch or a midnight snack by sweet-toothed Latin Americans; a café cortidito (espresso with a touch of milk) and tres leches is one of the most popular offerings in the Cuban cafes of Miami, regardless of the time of day.
The cake and coffee are so good at The Little Havana that I'm thinking about sneaking into Abelenda's after spending the night in another restaurant. This outer Bellaire neighborhood is also the home of several of my favorite Asian eateries. In fact, you see Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Mexican, Cuban and Salvadorean restaurants within a few stoplights of each other in this part of town. If I were to devour a little Vietnamese hotpot or a stunning Peking duck a few doors down and then stop into The Little Havana for a cortidito and a tres leches, would that be cheating?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.