TASTE: Henderson's Cuban Revolution
Publication: Las Vegas Weekly, Jul. 21 - Jul. 27 - Visit Here
The man behind Florida Café branches out to the 'burbs
By Max Jacobson

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 bojillo—or Cuban-style, thatched-roof hut—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 Christianos—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
Havana Grill strives for authentic cuisine

Henderson recently gained an authentic taste of Cuba in the Havana Grill, a restaurant owned by with Paul Garcel and Sergio Perez.
Joe Velar, a friend of Garcel's who is helping run the restaurant, said the eatery opened in early July after years of planning.
"Paul wanted to open a Cuban restaurant for the past 10 years," Velar said. "He asked me to help him open it, so we looked for a location, and once we found it, Sergio came into the project."
Velar said Garcel originally wanted to open the restaurant in Summerlin but never found the right location. He also considered opening on the Strip, but decided against it.
In January, Perez, a Henderson resident, found the space next to the Colonnade 14 that was formerly the home of French restaurant Bonjour, and he and Garcel decided to become partners.
Perez, who also owns the Florida Caf in downtown Las Vegas, is the head chef at the Havana Grill and sets the menu.
"The menu is pretty authentic Cuban food," Velar said. "It's actually the kind of food that a Cuban mom and pop restaurant would make. There are a few things on the menu that aren't totally Cuban, like a plain steak, but everything else is very authentic."
Velar said the most popular item on the menu is the Cuban sandwich, made with pulled pork, sliced ham, dill pickles, cheese and mustard on pressed bread. He said the mango, pineapple and traditional mint mojitos have become popular.
Other big hits on the menu, he said, include the Boliche Mechado, a slow-cooked roasted eye of beef, and the Ropa Viejo -- which means "old clothes" -- a shredded beef dish simmered with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions in a tomato-wine sauce.
Much of the food at the Havana Grill is served with a traditional mojo sauce made of garlic and lime juice. Velar said the mojo was originally used in Cuba because the quality of the meat usually wasn't high, and the garlic and lime juice were used to tenderize it.
"Now we still do it out of tradition for the flavor, though the meat is of high quality," he said.
After taking over the restaurant space, the owners installed an open-air window at the bar that opens into the patio area. Velar said the window was intended to make the patio area a more accessible part of the restaurant.
Perez and Garcel also have plans to expand the Havana Grill into the space next door, and Velar said in the next month the area will open with added restaurant seating as well as a stage for live bands.
"We're going to have some trios and quartets, some Latin salsa groups play there," Velar said. "We're hoping for a fun atmosphere, people dancing and enjoying themselves."
The Havana Grill hosts a happy hour from 3 until 7 p.m. and serves half-price margaritas and pina coladas, $2 beer and half-price appetizers at the bar and patio.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. It is located at 8878 S. Eastern Ave., Suite 100.

Havana Grill

8878 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson. 932-9310.

Sunday – Wednesday
11:00 am – 10:00 pm.

Thursday – Saturday
11:00 am - ?

Suggested dishes: croquetas, $3.95; sandwich Cubano, $7.95; pollo Havana, $13.95; boliche mechado, $12.95; cake de tres leches, $5.95.


directions havana grill