548 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
The Cuban flag flutters above Fifth Avenue. Blue and white stripes, red triangle, white star. Except down here at street level, nobody notices it. Too much going on. It’s Friday night and the Gaslamp is popping. Crowds of guys hand in hand with gals, mostly, cyclos with music full-blast and hoops of LED lights flashing up a storm. And competing with the cyclos, more music bouncing in from everywhere. Like, Santana’s “Evil Ways,” from the band upstairs here, plus rock from a rooftop bar, plus Mozart from a pavement violinist.
Right here, at Havana 1920, people line up to get into its Speakeasy, “Prohibition.” Every now and then, Elija the bouncer lets little groups in through a door with “Law Office, Eddie O’Hare Esq.” written in gold just below the traditional Prohibition-era metal slide. That’s where you gotta lean in and say, “I’m a friend of Eddie.”
Not really. Group of ladies appears. They’re all wearing rosettes that say, like, “Designated Drunk,” “Single Tonight.”
“Can you get me a drink?” this girl asks me. She’s with another bunch of gals in a bridal party. They all have black teeshirts with gold reflective lettering that says, “Cheers, Bitches!” Then it says “Bridesmaid.” Ah. I get it. She shows me her Bachelorette Scavenger Hunt card. It’s loaded with challenges like “Get a piggy back ride from a guy” (for 5 points), “Get someone to write their sex advice on a napkin” (10 points), “Kiss a bald man’s head” (15 points), or “Get a guy to give you his boxers” (20 points). Me getting her a drink’s worth 5 points. I’m willing, except uh-oh, Elija’s signaling. It’s their turn to go down into the speakeasy.
So I head inside the actual “Havana 1920” eatery (the building’s even older: it’s the Morton Hotel, 1888). Past the reception counter, louvre doors line the passage. And, oh, so cool. Or make that hot. They’re painted orange and red and yellow and different greens, so you get the Cuban vibe right away. And if that’s not enough, the stairs are actually boarding-steps from a Cubana Air Lines on-ramp, and the art shows an old Cubana Air Lines Constellation prop plane, straight out of Godfather 2.
Tonya, the receptionista gal, points to a place in the small streetside patio. We’re feet away from the Friday Night Follies, humanity sluicing up and down 5th. Man, I love crowds, love how people drop their inhibitions here, let it all hang out. I plonk down into a pink-cushioned seat and check the one-page menu.
Start off with a Cuban beer, natch ($7). Hatuey Lager (can’t resist checking: Hatuey was “Cuba’s first national hero,” a Taino rebel chief who the Spanish burned to death 500 years ago). The beer’s old, too, but not that old. It’s been around for a century.
It sure does the job on this humid evening. And actually, now I look at the menu, the food could go with it just fine. And at the right price. We’re talking bocaditos (bites), entradas (appetizers), ensaladas, and sandwiches. These all range from $3 to $20, but most are around $5, $6, $7. Okay, sandwiches go from $13 to $16.
“We serve authentic Cuban bread,” says Tonya. “They fly it in from La Segunda Bakery in Florida. The classic is our ropa vieja sandwich. It means ‘old clothes.’ It’s one of our most typically Cuban dishes.”
Ropa vieja? Old clothes. Think the idea is it’s basically shredded beef that looks like torn clothes. Comes with Swiss cheese, peppers, onions, and tomato sauce. Costs $15.
Ayee. I look back at Bocaditos. Bites.
The croqueta de jamón y queso (ham-cheese croquette) goes for, oh yes, $3. Then, the empanada de carne — beef turnover — is only $5, and the papa relleno de queso (“mashed potato fried to a golden brown and filled with cheese and peppers”) is only $4. I get that, just as an opener.
“All the bocaditos are served with mojo criollo and Havana Royale sauce,” says the menu. The light green mojo criollo is a mixture of tart orange, garlic, salt. The salmon-colored Havana Royale is just a ketchup and mayo mix. And yes, they both go great with the cheesy, peppery papa relleno.
But now I’ve gotta have something else. They have four platillos— entrées — a garlic half chicken ($19), — ground beef hash — ($17), Cuban-style roast pork ($20), and ropa vieja ($20). They all come with black beans, rice, and fried sweet plantains.
Still, 20 bucks? I look at the salads. For $10 you can get the Havana Salad, which sounds kinda cute with greens, grilled pineapple, black beans, tomato, “Caribbean avocados,” cucumber and onion. I like the sweet idea. Then Tonya says “how about a protein add-on?” Grilled chicken for $4, beef filet for $6, or shrimp for $9. Sigh. Can’t help going for the chicken. And it is generous. Actually, there’s one heckuvalot of grilled pollo on either side of the salad plate. It’s fresh, delicious, marinated, and fills out all my spaces.
And hey, three days later, here I am again. Just for a Hatuey cerveza and a snack. I get a bowl of Moros y Cristianos. Black beans and white rice. Okay, the name reflects Spaniards’ resentment against the Moors who ruled over them for a few centuries. But it’s a simple pile of rice, beans, red peppers, and a plate of — huh — fried yuCca chips with a vinegary dip. At six bucks, this is good value. At least enough to keep you going for an afternoon.
So, yeah, rich experience. And new. I mean, who’s seen this flag flying here for, oh, six decades?
The Place: Havana 1920, 548 Fifth Avenue, 619-369-1920
Hours: 8:00am – 1am, daily (kitchen open till 11pm, till 1am Friday, Saturday)
Prices: Ham and cheese croquettes, $3; chicken croquettes, $3; beef turnover, $5; Picadillo stuffed potato, with ground beef, $4; cheese-stuffed potato, $4; yucca fries, $6; fried sweet plantains, $6; Moros y Cristianos (black beans, white rice), $6; shrimp in garlic sauce, $14; Havana salad (with black beans, grilled pineapple, avocados), $10; add chicken, $4; ropa vieja beef sandwich and yuca fries, $15; Elena Ruz turkey sandwich with cream cheese, strawberries, $13
Nearest Bus Stop: Market and 6th, and all downtown buses at Broadway and 5th
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp Quarter (bottom of Fifth)