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By Laura Hahnefeld
As you might surmise from my pork-lovin' Tar Heel roots, there's nothing I adore more than a mass of shredded swine. But here in the desert, so far from the slaughterhouses of my native North Carolina, I've rarely come across restaurateurs who can prepare pig so that the meat is tender and moist sans sauce.
So I was tickled pinker than that piglet from Babe after I dined at B.J. and Gilbert Hernandez's twin eateries, Havana Cafe on East Camelback, and its younger, larger brother Havana Patio Cafe in north Phoenix. At both locales, the Hernandez hubby-wife team offers a formidable menu of Cuban cuisine, with nearly 80 items of tapas, soups, entrees and desserts from which to choose. But it should not surprise anyone that the platters I preferred at each involved those cloven-hoofed cousins of Wilbur from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.
My first visit was to the small, 60-seat Camelback location in central Phoenix, next to Daniel's. Along for the ride were Mikey, his gal-pal Jenny-from-the-Block (sporting one of those ubiquitous J.Lo-style caps) and the ever-radiant Madame X, a.k.a. cara mia. Together, we sampled several tapas from the menu (attempting all of them in one or even three sittings would be impossible). Madame X couldn't get enough of the camarones al ajillo -- four fat shrimp in a beige garlic-and-sherry sauce. Indeed, she dunked all of her bread in that liquid until the dish was dry. But Mikey and Jenny were keen on the Calypso chips, a big basket of fried plantain slices accompanied by a delicious, pureed black bean dip. As for me, only the chorizo, a dry Spanish sausage with a mixture of sweet and spicy pimientos, would do. Given this dish filled with dark chorizo slices sauted with red, green and yellow bell peppers, I was happier than a pig in . . . well, you know.
4225 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.
4225 East Camelback
Havana Patio Cafe
Hours: The same as Havana Cafe.
All four of us moaned and groaned in orgylike ecstasy at our entrees, which rivaled those I've experienced at other Cuban restaurants. J.Lo's double had ropa vieja, savory shredded beef prepared in a tomatoey sauce with onions; and Madame X supped on pollo cubano, two chicken breasts marinated with lime, orange and garlic, and smothered in sweet onions. Both items were served with scrumptious black moro beans and long-grain rice, and both were equally appreciated by those eating them, including me, who in my official capacity gets to try everything. Hey, it's good to be the king.
Mikey went loco on us, sticking as much of his big head as he could get into his little steel pot of mariscos con salsa verde, a fine farrago of fresh lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and so on. Maybe it was the third Cuba libre that set him off. I stuck to red wine, as is my preference, enjoying a glass or three of Caves Primavera '96, a Portuguese table wine featuring the tempranillo grape. Havana is in the process of revamping its wine list to offer primarily Latin American varieties, and the Primavera is new to the place, as is an exotic red vino from Uruguay that I'm dying to try on my next outing there.
I'll explain what main courses I had on my two trips to Havana, since I stopped by the north Phoenix location at a later date without my companions. At the Camelback restaurant, I reveled in the masas de puerco fritas, fried medallions of pork tenderloin, succulent and golden, with a lime-cumin gravy to be poured on top as one wished. But it was the paradise pulled pork at the larger, greener and generally more visually appealing north Phoenix spot that has made me a fervent devotee of the Hernandezes. This pulled pork reminded me of N.C. barbecue minus the vinegar and tangy sauce. Soft, long strands were sauted with onions, sweet peppers, herbs and plenty of garlic. Some habanero chiles are also used in the recipe, but not that you can really tell, so subtle and palatable is the result.
Not only do I dream of pulled pork now when I snooze, there's Havana's dessert menu as well, of which the star attraction has to be what I regard as the finest flan in the Southwest. I can say this as a former resident of La-La Land, because flan is on almost every menu there. By St. Crispin's clogs, I've eaten enough flan to fill the Glendale Arena! But Madame B.J. Hernandez (who's responsible for all the cooking) has crafted the thickest custard with caramel sauce I've ever encountered. Downed with a cup of sweet cafe Cubano, it'll make you sing "Babaloo!" louder than I Love Lucy's Ricky Ricardo.
All in all, I cannot recommend these two Havanas more highly for a glorious gustatory episode sure to sate you silly.
Boar's bollocks, could pork sushi be next?! Ever since my ill-fated visit to the Hotel San Carlos' cursed Steakhouse on Central, where Mikey received his pork chops nearly medium-rare instead of well-done as requested, I've been receiving the occasional missive informing me rather dramatically that the scourge of trichinosis has been eliminated by America's pork industry and how dare I suggest otherwise! Could it be that this town's grandest of gourmands had been, gulp, as off-base as Georgie Porgie on Iraq's mythical WMDs? For a brief moment, I considered performing seppuku on myself with my letter-opener, thus ceding the mantle of Phoenix's arbiter elegantiaeto that old fart Seftel at the Republic.