Restaurant review: Pablo's Havana Cafe

G.A. Benton
Arroz con pollo (center) with flan, sopa de pollo, frijoles negro, tostones rellenos and red bean soup

I'm occasionally surprised by the large number of local restaurants that offer Cuban sandwiches. Perhaps more surprising: This sum comes close to the number of local restaurants offering Cuban sandwiches that miss the mark.

Don't get me wrong — I've sampled many that taste good. I'm a skeptic of nit-picking traditionalism, so that list includes interesting iterations assembled with fillings that riff on the relative simplicity of the original's interior. While I've enjoyed the flavor of numerous Cuban sandwiches, though, most fall short when it comes to texture, intensity and proportion.

Unlike other sandwich classics whose enjoyment and very definition are not inextricably tied to bread — I don't really care if a Reuben is on griddle-crisped pumpernickel or simply toasted rye, or if a club sandwich is on white or whole wheat toast — a Cuban sandwich must be made with bread that's crunchy outside and soft inside, and the entire package needs to be notably condensed.

To achieve these all-important qualities, the fillings should be stuffed into crusty, thin Cuban bread that's toasted and smashed in a sandwich press until it's even thinner and the innards are compressed. Frankly, it needn't even be Cuban bread — anything resembling a toasted baguette run over by a truck is on the right track. Absent the desired textural charm and concentration of flavor, a Cuban sandwich is just an amped-up ham and cheese sandwich. That's still a winner in my book, but please don't elevate my expectations by calling it a Cuban sandwich.

With the first crackly bite of the flattened and spot-on Cuban sandwich I recently devoured in Pablo's Havana Cafe, my expectations were thoroughly met. Consider this a case of walking the walk, as crew members in the bright-and-tidy new little Powell operation have the recipe written on the backs of their black T-shirts.

Other visual embellishments in the modest but modern, often-bustling mom-and-pop shop include white subway tiles and mural-like photographic posters of Havana. The latter beckon winter-beaten Midwesterners like me with blue skies and dreamy Caribbean seascapes.

In addition to its expertly proportioned traditional Cuban sandwich (El Cubano, $9) described on staff shirts — delicious house-roasted pork, sweet deli ham and melted Swiss livened by pickles and mustard go into it — Pablo's offers an alternative that substitutes pulled chicken for roast pork (La Cubana, $8) that's good, if a distant second-place finisher.

Clothing of another sort is evoked by the Ropa Vieja ($12). Translating to “old clothes,” this zippy pot-roast-like stew is often called Cuba's national dish. Pablo's relatively mild but irresistible version is wonderfully tender and served with soupy black beans (mine were watery) and plain white rice. Like other entrees on the small menu, such as the fine-tasting but rather dry Arroz con Pollo ($12), it comes with a side such as decent (but over-salted) fries, flawlessly fried maduros (mature sweet plantains) or nice-and-crisp tostones (green plantain chips).

Skillfully fried green plantains reappear shaped like hollowed-out cupcakes in the Tostones Rellenos ($6 for three), a nifty appetizer with a diner-chosen filling. Pablo's picadillo is stripped-down and simple — think dense, crowd-pleasing Cuban sloppy joe mix — and it works great here. The hearty and homey Sopa de Pollo (chicken and potato soup, $5) or the beefy and tangy Red Bean Soup ($3 for a cup) are other terrific ways to start a meal.

The best way to end a meal is with a slice of the vanilla-scented house Flan ($4) and a Cafe con Leche (sweet little latte, $3). As I recently soothed myself with these on a freezing and gray February day, I momentarily pretended I could see myself in one of those oversized picture-postcards brightening Pablo's walls.

9685 Sawmill Rd., Powell


Pablo's Havana Cafe