For Josh’s sister’s birthday celebration with her friends, we joined the party at Havana Central in Union Square. The restaurant has quite a festive atmosphere but it was hard to converse with everyone, as we were seated at a long narrow table in the center of the room so people at either ends couldn’t hear or talk to one another. We still had fun though and the alcohol was definitely flowing.
We started off with pitchers of sangria and mojitos. Both were tasty, if a bit generic. What I didn’t like, however, is that they fill the pitchers with a lot of ice. One full pitcher of mojito only poured four highball glasses, which are tall but much thinner than a pint glass. Considering a pitcher of beer will pour four pints, the ice makes a significant difference. And at $40 a pitcher, it’s not exactly cheap.
We shared a few appetizers, including a few orders of empanada samplers, plantain chips with avocado salsa, and some fried yucca with chimichurri sauce. I think I also saw some ceviche floating around at the other end of the table but it didn’t make it all the way down to us. The empanadas though were my favorite. We cut them up into little pieces so that everyone could try a few different kinds. The beef picadillo was nicely salty with little bits of green olives, the chicken sofrito was a bit milder in flavor, and the Cuban had classic Cuban sandwich fillings of ham, pork, swiss cheese, and pickles.
For my main course I ordered the Cuban sandwich with seasoned potato wedges. The sandwich arrived nicely pressed with crispy bread on the outside but when I bit into it, it was very tough, dry, and bland. Thinking that maybe I didn’t get all of the fillings on the first bite, I took another, but it was the same. I gave Josh a bite, and he thought it was pretty terrible as well. There was no flavor at all, and since I know how a Cuban sandwich should taste, I decided to investigate the fillings. It turned out that the sandwich they had given me was the pernil (roasted pork) sandwich, not a Cuban sandwich. That explained the missing flavors but boy, was the sandwich bad in general. The meat was tough and hard to chew and totally lacked seasoning. Pernil should be tender and juicy, not dried out and stringy. I definitely would not recommend ordering the pernil sandwich here.
Obviously I sent back the pernil sandwich, explaining that I had ordered the Cuban sandwich. The server looked a bit confused but he took it back without any issues. Unfortunately I was stuck watching everyone else at the table eat while I waited for them to make a new sandwich. In the meanwhile, I picked at the side orders of maduros and tostones we got. The maduros were sweet and fine, if a bit oily.
The tostones were much better, with a nice crunchiness and saltiness to them. They came with a chimichurri sauce for dipping that added the garlic flavor I love so much with tostones.
I also stole a few bites of Josh’s entrée, chicken in garlic sauce. When I think of chicken in garlic sauce, I think of what you get at most Spanish restaurants, which are big pieces of chicken simmering in delicious garlic oil that you just want to dunk an entire baguette into. This was nothing like I imagined, with flat boneless chicken breast barely covered in a white-ish slightly garlicky white wine sauce. It didn’t taste bad, but it was much blander than I thought it would be, plus Josh’s chicken arrived stone cold. It did come with a nice big pile of rice and beans on the side, but the chicken could have been much better. He was a bit disappointed with the dish.
After everyone else at the table was halfway through his or her entrées, my Cuban sandwich arrived. And they very clearly threw it together in a rush. While I appreciate their hurry, despite the fact that it still took a fairly long time to get to me, I wish they had done a more careful job with it. It was a really silly way to handle the situation. Look, you already screwed up my order, and I didn’t make a scene or put up a huge fuss about it. I just asked that you replace it with the dish that I actually ordered. So I know that you wanted to get me a replacement as quickly as possible, but didn’t you also want to serve me a spectacular version of the dish I ordered so that I would be impressed and forget about the earlier gaffe? Instead, what I received was a sandwich haphazardly thrown together, and it wasn’t even pressed. The bread was cold, limp, and floppy, and the filling was also ice cold. They didn’t even attempt to melt the cheese in the sandwich, so what I ended up with was basically a cold bad deli sandwich with ham, cheese, and pickles, and few dry pieces of pork thrown in for good measure. It was awful – the worst Cuban sandwich I have ever had.
The only saving grace on the plate were the seasoned potato wedges. I do have to give them points for giving me a hot, fresh batch instead of transferring the ones from my old plate to the new plate. The fries are crusted with tons of seasoning, giving them a nice crispy outer shell, and they’re just thick enough to have a soft potato filling but not too thick that it’s too much potato on the inside. I ended up eating mostly just the potato wedges and packaged up the sandwich so that I could heat it up at home and press it myself, which I did the next day. Better, after the bread was crispy and the cheese was melted, but still pretty meh in flavor.
Overall I have to say that I was really disappointed with the food we had at Havana Central. I’ve been to this location before and have even held one of my own birthday parties here, and while the food was never mind blowing or spectacular, it was passable. Kind of like a generic chain Cuban restaurant; I’d compare it to TGI Fridays. The food is ok but not authentic, and you don’t go expecting much. But this time the food was pretty atrocious, and service was laughable.
Any time we needed something it took as at least five minutes to flag down the waiter or another server, whether it was to replace my sandwich or to get another pitcher of mojitos. I know the restaurant was really busy, as it was prime time on a Friday night, but they should know by now how to get their act together. The festive atmosphere means that people usually go there in large groups, and they should be prepared for that. While the food is at least reasonably priced, though drinks are a bit expensive, I still don’t recommend coming here with a lot of people. It’s really hard to hear everyone and carry on a good conversation. I don’t think I’ll be coming back any time soon.
Havana Central (multiple locations)
22 East 17th St. between Broadway and 5th Ave.
New York, NY