By Lyn Farmer | Sun-Sentinel
Restaurant info: Little Havana
Where: 12727 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami, 305-899-9069
Credit cards: all major
Hours: lunch, dinner daily
Sound level: moderate
Bar: full service
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Children’s facilities: yes
I suppose the first question people ask about Little Havana is what it’s doing in North Miami, or in Deerfield Beach, where there is a second restaurant with the same name and menu. The short answer is that there is Cuban food outside of Calle Ocho in Miami, and even though that neighborhood is referred to as Little Havana, the name seems perfectly appropriate to this friendly and popular restaurant on the other side of town.
To be sure, there’s nothing fancy about Little Havana. Lodged for years now in what was previously a chowder house, it has a sprawling and bright dining area that could serve as a small-town convention center.
As any Anglo who loves Cuban food can tell you, it can be as daunting a prospect for the linguistically challenged diner to get a great Cuban meal as it is to be sure what you’re eating in Chinatown. That’s not a problem here—the wait staff is large and a pleasure to deal with.
Fortunately, the menu is easy to navigate and the staff makes intelligent recommendations and easily answers any questions. I’ve heard diners ask the difference between green plantains and other plantains (ripeness is key), is boliche really pot roast (no, it’s better) and how do they get the fried yuca so light and crisp (lots of practice).
Everything is handled with unfailingly polite, Old World service.
And the food is good. It doesn’t do to order anything rare here (or at most other Cuban restaurants)—cooking long and slow is the order of the day for most dishes, but not for everything.
One of my favorite tests of a Cuban restaurant is masas de puerco ($5.95 as a starter, $9.95 as a main course), chunks of fried pork that usually are tough and dry. When the dish works, as it certainly does at Little Havana, the pork is crispy outside and tender and moist within, and absolutely addictive.
They treat chunks of dark meat from chicken ($5.50) in the same way and with equally gratifying results.
The fried yuca ($3.50) is successful partly because they cut wedges of yuca as small as french fries, and partly because it is fried in clean oil and handled quickly. A little creamy chimichurri on the side makes it a bracing starter.
I thought the ham croquettes ($2.50 for three) were mushy and bland, but the tamal with mojo has a good flavor from the corn flour and is neither too dry nor mushy, it’s just right.
Though they get little billing by the staff, the omelets at Little Havana are a real specialty of the house, especially a very good sausage omelet ($5.25) and a version with shrimp ($9.95).
Shrimp figures too in the house paella ($38 and more than enough for two). It’s a major production with three servers hovering to distribute the plates studded with lobster and shellfish. The yellow rice with seafood ($38) is similar, though cooked in a deeper pot. I like mine drier, but the flavors are fine.
For other main courses, the chicken steak marinated with lime and onions ($9.95) is another example of the kitchen’s good sense of timing—it’s tender and moist.
The parillada, a mixed grill for two ($23.95), is fine with flavorful chicken and chorizo, but the beef is too low a grade to be tender and my pork was a bit dry. The roast pork ($9.95) is a better bet.
I’ve also loved the lamb shank ($11.95) at Little Havana—it is cooked so long it falls off the bone but loses none of its flavor in a rich red wine sauce.
The shredded beef ($8.95) does lose some flavor from the long cooking, but for Cuban friends, this is real comfort food and they have loved Little Havana’s light tomato-based sauce in which the meat is cooked.
Desserts at Little Havana are predictably rich, with a very sweet but flavorful Tres Leches ($3.50) and an excellent, creamy crema Catalana ($3.25).
Little Havana isn’t on anyone’s list of cutting-edge restaurants, but for anyone in north Miami-Dade, it’s a comforting presence and a fine source of carefully prepared traditional food in an area where Cuban cooking is scarce.
Please phone in advance to confirm information on hours, prices, menu items and facilities. For review consideration, please fax a current menu that includes name and address of restaurant to 954-356-4386 or send to Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293.