Every time on of my friends travels to Cuba, I start craving the stewed beef dish, ropa vieja. The pictures they share on Facebook never have anything to do with food: it's mostly cars, beaches, and old buildings. But I wind up hungry anyhow.
5450 Clairemont Mesa Bl., #G, Clairemont
And this time I wind up at Havana Grill, part of a small shopping center in Clairemont. I had high hopes, because its menu is deep, and bandies words such as natural, hormone free and organic.
The counter restaurant's dining room has far more warmth and welcome than its generic exterior suggests. Vaulted ceilings and red brick are balanced with occasional details: a few well positioned fronds, upholstered furniture, and a box of coconuts ready to be opened for the nourishing water within.
For $16, my ropa vieja comes with a choice of rice and black beans, or congri, a combination of the two, sautéed together with aromatic vegetables and spices. I always mix rice and beans together on my place anyway, so that one's a satisfying no-brainer.
For the $16 ropa vieja, Havana Grill braises the shredded beef in wine and organic tomato sauce, with olives and capers. I hoped some of those featured flavors would have come through with a bit more depth, and I would bet by dinnertime this savory and tender beef really shines. It certainly fulfilled my irrational vacation photo craving.
Someone behind the counter suggested I not miss the restaurant's lechón, a similar dish in the sense it's a pulled pork. You can get a $16 entrée, but it's also the feature of the sandwich menu, where it's dubbed "The classic."
The pork, too, had pleasant but mild flavor to go with outstanding tenderness, but what really caught my attention was the house-baked bread holding the pork. It's got about the perfect chew for a sandwich, good enough to elevate the whole thing. I'm thinking, next time someone I know winds up in Cuba, my craving will be for a Cubano sandwich at Havana Grill.