I don’t dream about food as much as you might think. But when I do, I often dream of a Cubano sandwich, on a grilled crisp baguette brimming full of slow-cooked pork, cheese and homemade pickles. It’s either that or fried plantains. And beans, black ones. Most of the time, it is all of those things. And in my dream, I eat everything in sight and I still wake up hungry.
And now there is a little surprise in West San Jose that has my Cuban food-lust-dreams working overtime. El Habañero is tucked away in a non-descript shopping center hidden by a clot of gas station/office building/rust-bucket ex-Sizzler buildings off of Winchester Boulevard. Although their name doesn’t immediately evoke Cuban staples of black beans and rice, plantains and grilled or stewed meats, they do Cuban and do it well.
From the street, El Habañero appears to be just another Mexican restaurant in the West San Jose area that already has plenty of really great taquerias and restaurants. So unless you’re paying attention, the restaurant may escape your notice. But because El Habañero is so good, I am in favor of a huge neon sign that says “Cuban food NOW!” a la Krispy Kreme just to hammer the point home.
The room itself is part of an ex-“pizza and pipes” Italian joint that was there for a couple of decades. So even before you order and eat, it’s that neighborhood feel that was established long ago that makes El Habañero very comfortable. Ada, one of El Habañero’s owners, is on the spot, chauffeuring you to your choice of table or booth and making you feel at home.
Their menu is split about 50/50 Cuban and Mexican. Ada explained to me that their menu featured both Cuban and Mexican food because her husband (and co-owner) is Mexican. However, Ada is from Cuba and you really you want the Cuban food here. Thinly-pounded meats, flash-grilled with salt and lime or breaded (bistec empanizado) and served with grilled onions, flank steak stewed with tomatoes (ropa vieja), arroz con pollo…all of the basics. By the way, many people assume that because Cuba is close to Jamaica that the food is spicy – most of the dishes use onion, garlic and other leafy herbs to achieve their flavor rather than chilis.
Black beans, rice and plantains are Cuban staples and, logically, they appear with every dish on the menu. The cool thing is that they offer them in the “moros” style (moros y christianos). The black beans are cooked with the rice resulting in a dark-grey, purplish flecked mixture that gives them the nice texture detail of a pilaf. But the Cuban staple that had me all a-twitter was the plantain. They have the double-fried tostones, made from green plantains, which have a sweet/savory flavor and a starchier texture. The fully ripe plantains are turned into my all-time favorite maduros fritos, which come out in bias-sliced, crisp-around-the-edges disks. Soft on the inside, these platanos are sweet, slightly chewy and compliment any strong flavor on the plate. You could also opt for just the plate of maduros and be in true plantain heaven.
A friend mine who tipped me to El Habañero told me that she heard that they had a “secret” menu of Cuban dishes. When I asked Ada about it, she laughed and said although there is a huge variety of dishes in the Cuban repertoire, it’s untenable to try to do them all but that they might be expanding their menu or offering non-menu weekend specials in the future. (She did give a wink and said that if there was something special that I wanted, that they would make it, provided they had the ingredients on hand.)
El Habañero is the kind of place where you feel so welcome that it’s difficult to resist coming back. The food is excellent and Ada and her staff attend to your every need, making sure that you are enjoying your time there. And if you want to talk about Cuban food with her, you’ll have an even better time. My only concern is that they are in somewhat of a restaurant dead zone on the edge of a residential neighborhood. I want to see them succeed because if I can literally walk down the street to get an excellent plate of ropa vieja or a lechon cubano sandwich then I’m a very happy guy indeed. Hopefully, word-of-mouth and the quest for Cuban food-love will keep them around for a long time.
El Habañero, 3132 Williams Rd, San Jose, 408.557.8914