Several times a month, a reader asks, “Where can I get good Cuban food in town?” The answer is simple enough, as for many of the recent years it’s either been,“Sorry, the Cuban restaurants have closed” or “They’ve got a Cuban menu at Los Compadres — but it’s really a Mexican restaurant.”
The real question, though, was “Why are there no Cuban restaurants in town?” Everyone, it seems, misses Lupe and Bea’s or Sabor Tropical. Now that Havana’s Pilon has opened, I’ve got another answer and I’ll only have to issue one caveat with my recommendation: It’s a tiny place.
There are just two two-top tables and a few bar stools, so while you can dine in, chances are you’ll have to wait for a seat if you go during the lunch rush (at least for now; an expansion is in the works). By waiting until a little before 1 p.m. on a Friday, we were able to claim a table.
The menu looks a bit lean at first glance, but there’s a daily special in addition to 10 or so entrees. We particularly enjoyed the mofongo and picadillo on our first visit.
Marialys Gonzales and Pedro Pena, who are married, own the restaurant, which they opened in May. Gonzales is from Cuba, but the couple lived in Puerto Rico before coming to Memphis in December.
“Mofongo is basically from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico,” Pena said. “We wanted something from Puerto Rico on the menu, so we said mofongo.”
Green plantain is cooked and mashed, in a mortar and pestle known as a pilon, with garlic, olive oil and chicharones, or fried pork skin. It’s served in a smooth mound, covered with a thick tomato-butter sauce, with shrimp tinted red from an annatto seasoning mix scattered around.
It’s delicious and hearty, certainly a stick-to-your-ribs meal.
We also ordered picadillo, skillet-fried ground beef with tomatoes, onions, garlic, cumin and oregano, dotted with salty green olives. Also delicious. The picadillo comes with two side items of your choice. The soupy red beans are dynamite, and I’d gladly make a meal of them. Tostones were either fried too hard or had been sitting for a while; either way, they had little flavor and were tough.
The Cuban sandwich was generous, the meat (ham and roasted pork, cooked in-house) tender and tasty.
Ropa vieja translates to “old clothes” in Spanish and is a common dish in many Caribbean countries. It’s almost always made with beef, as it is here. I’ve ordered it at places where it’s all but inedible, stringy lengths of beef that are chewy and tough. But at Havana’s Pilon, it’s excellent, with a texture similar to the small bits of beef in an overcooked pot roast. I mean that in the best way, as in a chuck roast or a brisket cooked in a sauce for hours, until the meat is fork tender. It also comes with two sides.
Congri rice is a hearty serving of rice mixed with black beans, and while it’s fine, it doesn’t compare to the red beans. The boiled yucca, topped with thin slices of red onion, is quite good. Yucca is a cultivated root similar to a potato, but with a waxier texture. It doesn’t have much flavor alone, so the onion helps and so does a dash of salt and pepper.
Fried ripe plantains are sweet and soft, a side dish similar to an order of sweet potatoes, though more delicate and without the cloying sauce often on candied “yams” (they’re not really yams, you know).
Pena said he hopes to expand to adjoining space soon, perhaps by the end of the summer. When that happens, he’ll extend the hours through dinner. For now, he opens at 9 a.m. to serve a limited breakfast menu. (Don’t bother to call, though, because they don’t answer the phone until lunch service starts at 11 a.m.) Empanadas are served when the doors open and are made fresh all day.
The ham and cheese empanada was my favorite of the four available (cheese, chicken and shrimp are the others). The pastry is delicate and flaky, filled with melted cheese and just enough bits of ham to provide a salty bite. I’d love to see both a beef and a salt fish empanada on the menu. These “patties” bring to mind Caribbean palm trees, and who couldn’t use such a reminder during the lunch hour?
Address: 143 Madison
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Empanadas ($2.15 or $3.15 for shrimp); mofongo ($9.75); picadillo ($7.25); ropa vieja ($7.50); side order of red beans and fried ripe plantains ($1.75 if ordered alone, though most dishes come with side items).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars