Cafe Reviews

Hog Heaven

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.

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 elegantiae to that old fart Seftel at the Republic.

To settle the matter, I put in a call to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. After all, when I was a wee lad, I'd had it drilled into my head by my educators that one had to be careful to prepare well all porcine products for fear of the Trichinella parasite, a particularly nasty little roundworm that could hatch its cysts in your intestines, gnaw through your gut and take up residence in your internal organs and muscle tissue. Once that far gone, there's no cure and the result could be, well, death. Visions of worm-riddled carcasses put the fear of Yahweh into my agnostic ass, and I've always been careful to eat the flesh of oinkers only when cooked through and through.

The CDC's fact sheet on trichinosis initially seemed to confirm my childhood fears, stating bluntly, "If you eat raw or undercooked meats, particularly pork, bear, wild feline, fox, wolf, horse, seal or walrus, you are at risk for trichinosis." The CDC's online guidelines suggest that readers "cook meat products until the juices run clear or to an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit." When I spoke directly to CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson, she confirmed that trichinosis was far less common than it once was.

"During the years 1997 through 2001, there were 72 cases of trichinosis reported to the CDC," said Pearson. "Thirty-one of those were associated with eating wild game, nine with eating non-commercial pork. However, 12 of the 72 were associated with commercial pork. Four of those 12 cases involved pork from foreign sources."

Considering the sheer volume of pork consumed in the United States (about 65 pounds per capita annually), this seems a low risk, but one not entirely eliminated from the food supply. The USDA advises that pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a slightly less conservative recommendation than the CDC's. Still, most of us don't run around with meat thermometers in our pockets, so what do we do if we're in a restaurant and the server asks how we want our pork done? Obviously, we can't eat Miss Piggy rare (though one wonders if Kermit ever did), so what are our options?

"You should ask that the meat be cooked medium or higher, to 160 degrees internally," explained USDA flack Matt Baun in the agency's D.C. offices. "It can look pink at 160 degrees, but you have to make sure the cooks know what they're doing."

To each his own, of course, but given the fact that I eat out most nights of the week, and that cooking pork well enough kills off such pathogens as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, in addition to any Trichinella cysts present, I'll stick to well-done, if asked. For those who want pork sushi, I'll pass, but by all means, pig out if you care to risk nematodes squirming in your colon.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons