It all started with a truck. Sergio Perez really never thought about opening an offshoot of his Florida Café in Henderson, but now he has done so, at the corner of South Eastern Avenue and Pebble Road, next to the Colonnade 14 Cinemas. He's glad he did, and so are lots of local Cuban-food fans.
Perez, a likable fellow in his late- 30s, makes the best Cuban food in town. Florida Café, in the Howard Johnson across the street from the Stratosphere, has been popular for several years now, but is a long way from the southeast corner of Vegas. So Cuban-food lovers like me were forced uptown when struck with the urge to eat this heady, filling cuisine.
But Perez, who lives in Henderson, was asked constantly about Florida Café by neighbors, who saw the name emblazoned on his truck. It finally dawned on him to open a place closer to home and he's been doing a land-office business ever since. It just so happens that I am practically addicted to the ham croquetas, Cuban sandwiches and tres leches cake he makes. If there is one restaurant in this part of Vegas where I plan to regularly spend my own money in, Havana Grill is the ticket.
Even though he is doing a remodel at Florida Café, it's doubtful that Perez will be able to top his newest effort, a charming place in the space formerly home to Bonjour, a French bistro that recently relocated. The restaurant is a trifle boxy, but that is made up for by an abundance of Cuban oils and watercolors, a gorgeous tile floor, sponge-painted walls and handsome stonework.
The hostess stand is a mock bojilloâ€”or Cuban-style, thatched-roof hutâ€”and there are lots of tropical plants throughout the room. The bar area is partitioned off by a large glass panel, a cheerful space ideal for sipping one of the city's best mojitos, made with muddled mint, simple syrup, Rose's Lime Juice and a light Cuban rum called Matusalem.
I like to start meals here with appetizers to share, so you won't catch me dining alone. The mezcla de aperitivos is a bargain at $13.95, and is a hearty lunch for two all unto itself.
The plate is anchored by a huge tamal, a steamed cylinder of soft masa (dough), topped with hot onions and chicharrones, or crunchy pork cracklings. There also are a pair of ham croquetas, flanked by a slice of ham topped with melted cheese; papa rellenos, deep-fried, stuffed potato balls; and a mini-Cuban sandwich. For those unfamiliar with this sandwich masterpiece, a Cuban sandwich is a pressed, hot, pulled-pork, ham and cheese sandwich.
Even though this is hard to believe, main courses are heartier than the appetizers. One of my personal faves is boliche mechado, a sort of pot roast stuffed with sausage that you eat with moros, short for Moros y Christianosâ€”literally "Moors and Christians."
This is Cuban Spanish for black beans mixed with white rice, a linguistic joke, I guess. You can work out the demographics yourself, but the result is filling and delicious. Moros also go well with pollo Havana, a half-roasted chicken of bionic proportions, redolent of garlic and grilled onions. One more main course popular all over the Spanish-speaking world is camarones al ajillo, a seminal platter of shrimps cooked in an oily garlic sauce.
This all begs the question: How come Cubans are never fat?
There are many other dishes not to miss. One of the typical Cuban dishes is lechon asado: oven-roasted leg of pork rubbed with orange peel. Another classic is picadillo aceituno: ground beef tossed with entirely too many olives, as well as a healthy dose of tomato, garlic and onions. The idea is to mix this portion with rice, but I like it on top of a pile of tostones, fried plantain chips that are to the Caribbean what Frito-Lay is to the lower 48.
Soup may seem like an afterthought in this context, but the house red-bean soup, a.k.a. sopa de frijoles colorado, is a revelation, brimming with pork fat and the occasional bay leaf. Rice lovers can cleave to arroz con pollo, a yellow rice dish loaded with chicken, sweet plantains, peas and pimento. For the fanatic, there is even paella Valenciana, the Spanish rice extravaganza which is like arroz con pollo, if you were to add seafood and sausages.
The most famous Cuban dessert is tres leches, a moist, yellow layer cake made from a mix of three milks: whole, evaporate and condensed. Cubans eat it with a rich meringue frosting, and when coconut shavings are added, the name of the dessert changes to riquimbin. For something lighter but immutably Cuban, try casco de guyaba: guava shells in sweet syrup, traditionally eaten with white cheese.
It's going to take major discipline for me to pass the corner of Pebble and Eastern without stopping from here on in.
Cuba comes to Henderson
Henderson recently gained an authentic taste of Cuba in the Havana Grill, a restaurant owned by with Paul Garcel and Sergio Perez.