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[whitespace] Zeida Calvo
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Havana Blast: Owner Zeida Calvo has operated this unusual ethnic outpost on Race Street for six years.

Cuban Getaway

A culinary oasis in the midst of industrial San Jose, Habana Cuba exudes slow-cooked cultural delights

By Christina Waters

THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS IN which this inviting old dining room welcomes regulars every afternoon. Twin staircases climb opposite walls up to a mezzanine overlook. Dark carpeting of no particular color softens the wainscoting, and deep blue upholstery inspires the lace curtains. In what feels just like someone's front parlor, a talented team of Old World cooks serves sensuous foods of the Caribbean.

Warmth and simplicity set the same tone as the foods themselves, long on tomato and peppers, slow-roasted meats and earthy black beans. Always one of my favorite lunch spots in San Jose, Habana Cuba won me all over again last week with a bowl of its amazing Galacia soup ($5). Lauren and I had rushed in from the pouring rain and were definitely in the mood for something soothing. In a world of increasing generic dining spots, Habana earns points for individuality. No politically correct items shout for attention. No trendy spins punctuate the menu. Just a menu full of good flavors. And yes, you can order side portions of sticky yucca, or sweet plantains or just plain exceptional white rice.

But, ah, the soup. Admittedly the gray, rainy weather added poetry to the idea of luxurious hot soup. But the Galacia is God's Spanish idea of what should really be done with a few beans--garbanzos in this case--onions, ham, escarole, carrots and peas. All bound together in a fine broth, the vegetables conspired with the morsels of ham to make an indelible impression. Lauren and I were both in heaven--this was easily the finest soup in town.

We barely had time to sip our glasses of guarana--the rainforest's answer to Dr. Pepper--when our table started overflowing with dishes. Bowls of beans the color of midnight showed up along with platters piled high with perfect white rice and moist roast plantains. The center of each platter remained empty. Expectant. That's where we dished spoonfuls from a flotilla of serving bowls filled with roast pork (lecon a la cubana--$8.50), tamal cubano ($7.75) and wedges of firm, white sea bass ($10.95). We shared from each dish, sighing frequently and admiring the deceptively simple presentation of each entree.

Pyramids of glistening pork had been roasted, and basted and roasted some more until it was practically a confit. Flaking off succulent shreds, we dredged them through the black beans and polished off each bite with a hit of the sweet, gooey plantain. The deep, musky perfume of the beans was practically addictive, as was the juice forming at the bottom of the bowl of tamal. Masa to one side, the tamal's exposed filling of shredded beef, red and green spiced peppers, tomatoes, peas and green olives all blended to create an exotic flavor. A similar infusion of green olives, onions, parsley and peppers topped the large piece of perfectly moist sea bass.

As is always true of slow-cooked foods prepared with well-balanced spices and seasonings, each dish seemed to improve as it cooled. Even though the soup was distinctly salty, it was so good that we kept coming back to it throughout the long, rainy lunch.

We had fallen under the spell of this place. Having consumed more than necessary of the splendid black beans, bite after bite of masa with olives and yet more sea bass, we considered slowing down. Although Lauren and I showed no restraint in tackling the beautiful slabs of roast pork, there was no way we could make a dent in this portion. Happily, we had lots of rice, pork and plantains packed to go for next day's lunch.

Cups of heavy-duty Cuban espresso kept company our shared order of flan ($4), all quivering in caramel syrup, stained bright yellow and topped festively and authentically with a bright red maraschino cherry. Here was obviously the sort of dessert that Che would have polished off before lighting up a Romeo y Julieta.

Habana Cuba Restaurant
Address: 238 Race St., San Jose
Phone: 408.998.2822
Hours: Lunch: Mon- Fri 11am-2:30pm. Dinner: Tue- Thu 5pm-9pm; Fri 5pm-10pm; Sat 4pm-10pm; Sun noon-8pm. Closed Mon.
Cuisine: Cuban and Brazilian; beer and wine

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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