It’s just traditional Cuban food,” Orlando Miranda told me. “It’s not brain surgery.” Miranda is the 65-year-old face of the group of investors that recently opened Taste of Havana in Logan Square on a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue I seem to be writing an awful lot about lately.
He says his chefs like to lay low. “Basically, within the community people know their food but not their faces. Humble people. They don’t like the limelight.”
Miranda, a former marketing guy, will take it. He and his partners opened the two-month-old restaurant to occupy themselves in various states of retirement and semiretirement, he says, inspired by the closing last year of their former hangout nearby, homey hole-in-the-wall El Rinconcito Cubano.
“But also we want to make a buck too.”
Taste of Havana is a bit more elegante than El Rinconcito Cubano was. The alluring aroma of fried garlic pervades a long brick-walled dining room with a glowing bar devoted to mojitos and other alcoholic pursuits; there’s also a coffee bar for cortaditos and cafes con leche in the rear. The idea, says Miranda, who came to Miami from Florida, Camagüey, at the age of eight, was to evoke the spirit of prerevolutionary Havana, a mood underscored by servers sporting white guayaberas but perhaps diminished by the wine racks filled with bottles of Two-Buck Chuck hanging on the wall.
“Don’t order those wines,” said a fellow one evening, laughing as he passed out samples of the kitchen’s frita Cubana, a burger of pork, chorizo, and beef topped with fried potato matchsticks. “Those are strictly decoration.”
All the other members of the Cuban sandwich family are accounted for on the menu—pan con bistec, medianoche, etc—as well as a hijacked Chicagorican jibarito named El Guajirito (the Cuban analogue to the Puerto Rican “little yokel”). The gold-standard Cubano is an unusually stacked version relative to the bread-forward norm, thick, with ham and pork tenderloin still snugly contained within its pressed bread coffin, its proper proportional balance of cheese, pickles, butter, and mustard contributing the necessary fatty-acid chemistry within.
There’s a capable fry game among Miranda’s humble chefs, who put out soft, creamy ham croquettes and picadillo-stuffed mashed-potato papas rellenas, each contained within a delicate, crunchy bread-crumb batter. Flaky beef or chicken empanadas, thick batons of fried yuca, and dense, caramelized fried sweet plantains display the same deft touch with the fry basket.
There’s a lot to work with on this menu, particularly the beefy classics from the Cuban canon—four different approaches to the flat, thin bistec, plus liver and onions, skirt steak with chimichurri, and the formidable vaca frita, shredded and deep-fried flank steak topped with onions, a cousin to the stewier ropa vieja, aka “old clothes.”
The majority of the allium prevalent in the atmosphere comes from the garlic-onion-bell pepper sofrito that forms the base of many of these dishes, though I suspect a large minority issues from the fat, snappy garlic shrimp.
The daily chalkboard specials are where things get interesting, featuring less common and/or more labor-intensive slow cookers like oxtail stew, arroz con pollo, and a two-person seafood paella or a greasy-good Cuban-style fried rice with chicken, ham, and shrimp. Saturday features the starchy, meaty soup ajiaco Cubano, more commonly known as sancocho in Puerto Rico, thick with yuca, squash, pork, corn on the cob, and the dried beef tasajo that gives it so much depth.
The bar pours some surprisingly boozy yet balanced mojitos, relative to their common cloying profile, particularly a slightly bitter grapefruit variant and a full-bodied mango, and there are some drinkable wines less suitable for wall art.
Miranda told me that as late as the 80s the space was occupied by a well-known Cuban spot known as La Lechonera. These days Cuban food in Chicago isn’t exactly endangered, but with Bia’s in Irving Park resurrecting the late, great Café Marianao on Milwaukee, and now Taste of Havana picking up for El Rinconcito Cubano, these homey, comforting classics endure in a worthy form. Miranda’s right. It isn’t brain surgery—but it’s nothing to be humble about either. v