A new hot spot has opened in Roanoke, and I for one, am excited! Habana Cafe, located in the newly renovated City Market Building, offers a tasty selection of Cuban food and a family atmosphere that invites a fun evening to be had by all.
They have just recently extended their dinner hours to accommodate diners past 7 p.m. and they have added beer and wine to their offerings. We had tried to check this little gem out a couple of times before, but could never get there before closing, so we were happily surprised on a recent Friday night visit. It is definitely still in the beginning organization phase as evidenced by the haphazard seating and table-wait system. We entered the restaurant to a lively crowd that looked like they were waiting for a table. There was no host or wait list, but the owner came over and greeted us and acknowledged our need for a table. We tried to give our name and party number but that was ignored. We sat at the bar for a little while and finally flagged a server down to order a drink while we were waiting. She took our order but never returned. Eventually another server came up to us to take a drink order, but she misunderstood what we had ordered. The wait was rather long for a table since seating is sparse, but all patrons seemed happy and enjoying themselves. There were many large families with multiple generations in the dining room. Eventually we got a table and some menus. If you can get past this disorganization in the beginning, you are in for a treat.
The owner came over to our table and greeted us again and took a drink order. He was very conciliatory about our wait and extremely friendly. He also made the rounds to other tables- checking on customers, sparking conversations with groups and generally creating the community relations that a good owner should be conscious of. The same server from the bar waited on us. She was very friendly, but maybe a little new to English. She did not seem to understand that we were ordering an appetizer and then our dinners. We ordered the shrimp ceviche to start and gave her our dinner order but asked them to come out separately. This did not end up being the case. We waited quite a while and then our entrees arrived. We told the server then that we would skip the ceviche because dinner was here. She was very apologetic and then ended up bringing it out anyway on the house. This was where the mistakes ended.
The food was delicious. The long-awaited ceviche was fresh, tart and perfectly done. It wasn't overly citrusy, was obviously fresh and a great palate awakener. We had ordered a smattering of items from the menu to get a feel for the food. One of the entrees was a serving of roasted pork, black beans and rice, plantains and yucca. The yucca was the star! It had a sumptuous texture and a rich mojo marinade...really good! The black beans and rice were not the usual throwaway they can be. The beans had been simmered with hunks of pork and cumin. The plantains were huge! They had obviously been mashed and then formed into tasty cakes. The pork also had a zesty mojo flavor and succulent texture. That plate was a hit at our table. The next plate was a traditional sandwich Cubano. The bread was right. That may seem a strange statement, but so often Cuban sandwiches come on non-traditional bread that does not press properly and is too doughy. This bread was right. Inside was a layering of ham, roasted pork, spicy mustard, cheese and pickles. I will say that it needed a little kick. I like my Cuban sandwiches to have that zest of mustard and sharpness of pickle to bring out the meat, but it seemed very tame in this instantiation. It was an easy remedy though with a hit of house hot sauce. The Ropa Vieja came in a similar set-up as the pork as we ordered the same side items. It was as good a version of Ropa Vieja as I have had since leaving Florida.
What happened next is what made this a "Hot Time in Roanoke." Two gentleman that had been eating at the bar with their families when we arrived set up in the corner with some bongos and microphones. They introduced themselves and gave a shout out to the owner for a Happy Birthday and the place erupted in applause. Then the magic began as they beat on the drums and began singing. The music was a mix of African Tribal beats and Salsa. People at the tables began swaying to the music and one of the servers set her tray down and began salsa dancing. It was such a fun and relaxed atmosphere that we forgot we were finished with our dinners and got caught up in the revelry. Surprisingly, it was not too loud for the small space and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was the most entertaining Friday night in Downtown Roanoke in quite some time.
Habana Cafe is still finding its footing, but if it can make it past the growing pains, I think it will be a fabulous addition to the Downtown scene. My advice: be patient with them and you will be in for some delicious food and a rousing good time!