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STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Ropa Vieja at Habana Cafe includes: Shredded beef with Creole sauce of tomatoes, onions and Cuban spices served here with Yuca and Arroz Congris/Black Beans and Rice.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Travis Isom, 32, of Salem, enjoys the tres leches cake (three milk cake) with a Cuban coffee at Habana Cafe on the city market on Friday.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
I’ve heard grumbling that the renovated Roanoke City Market Building lacks the charm and atmosphere of the old place. To those people and to anyone looking for a great place to spend a summer evening, I’d recom mend a trip to Habana Cafe.
This restaurant and bar opened in the market building in January 2012. Owner Yordanys “Yordy” Rosenda got the idea to open the restaurant while his other business, Art Tile Inc., was doing tile work for the building’s renovation. Habana Cafe features the traditional food and drink of Rosenda’s native Cuba.
My first trip to the restaurant was for dinner and drinks with a friend. We chose a table in the outdoor dining area and ordered a mojito ($5). The combination of rum, lime, sugar and fresh mint was perfectly balanced — tart, sweet and refreshing. We sat without talking, sipping our drinks and watching people go by. Latin music was playing in the background, and an artist sat sketching at the table next to us. When my friend turned and said, “I feel like I’m … somewhere else,” I knew exactly what she meant. The tropical vibe made it feel like a sidewalk cafe in Miami.
Our server was happy to answer questions about the menu. When she brought us a bottle of mojo sauce, she explained that this peppery blend of citrus juice, olive oil and garlic is the classic Cuban condiment for meats and side dishes such as cassava and plantains.
For dinner, I chose the churrasco ($15.99), beef skirt steak that is marinated and grilled. It was flavorful and well seasoned but could have been more tender had it not been cooked to well done. Dinner entrees come with three side dishes, so I chose black beans and rice, fried green plantains and a side salad. I enjoyed the first two sides, but it was the house dressing, an avocado vinaigrette, that really wowed me. It was creamy and flavorful enough to make a side salad something special.
My friend had the ropa vieja ($13.89), braised shredded beef seasoned with tomato and onion. It was like a cross between pot roast and pulled pork barbecue, and when paired with a side dish of mashed potatoes it was Cuban comfort food at its finest. We finished our meal with a Cuban coffee ($1.65). That tiny cup of sweetened, deep, dark espresso-style coffee was the most delicious coffee I’ve had since I was in Italy years ago.
My next trip to Habana Cafe was for lunch with a different friend. Again, the weather was perfect for outside dining, but I took some time to look around the inside space. It features bold colors, clean modern lines and a row of conga drums as bar stools. Yes, they are the real thing, and people sometimes hop off and play along with the music! In fact, music and dancing are on the menu three nights a week. On Wednesdays it’s salsa dancing, on Fridays there’s live music, and on Saturdays there is a DJ.
Back outside, I ordered a Cuban sandwich ($8.99) and, eager to try something new, a side order of cassava root ($2.99). The sandwich arrived hot and crisp off the griddle, but the slivers of ham and cheese were overshadowed by thick chunks of dry roast pork. I was also disappointed that the traditional pickles were missing. This was a sandwich in need of a little pizzazz, and the pickles would have helped. The cassava root was a bit like a potato, but with a silkier texture. It was boiled and then seasoned with onion and mojo sauce, and it was delicious.
My dining companion chose the ropa vieja ($8.99 at lunch), clearly one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. For dessert we tried tres leches cake ($2.99) and flan ($3.19). The desserts, both made in-house, satisfied our sweet tooth cravings. We finished with that wonderful coffee.
There’s a lot to like about Habana Cafe — the service, drinks, food, music and dancing. But it’s the atmosphere and charm, the sense that you’re in a place that’s both familiar and exotic, that make this place special.
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