Words by Emily Catino
“Life is beautiful, you must live it” are words by Cuban superstar Celia Cruz. It’s no coincidence that this is one of the lines scrawled throughout Little Havana, 14th and Spring’s newest resident for Cuban/Caribbean fare, opening this Friday. The latest offering from Chef Alfredo Solis (of Petworth’s own Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana fame) is serving up more Cubano spice than the name alone suggests. Murals by Ernesto Zelaya saturate the small space meant to seat 60 people with some of Cuba’s most renowned descendents, including Cruz, Che Guevarro and the Washington National Gio Gonzalez.
If that wasn’t enough Latin flare for you, the “Little Havana” typeface is inspired by Miami Vice and the silhouetted palm trees are modeled after the infamous Scarface wallpaper. The Havana flavor seeps from the walls into the food, and boy is that food something you want to say hello to, my little friends.
Walking into Little Havana you immediately get the vibe that this is a labor of love. It’s small enough that intimacy is inevitable and when you catch a whiff of what they’re cooking in the open-facing kitchen, you know that you’re in for some traditional Cuban fare. And that’s exactly what it is, as many of the dishes are inspirations from Chef Joseph Osorio’s Godmother, Mimi. At the soft opening, the servers were serving up the family-style fare at a satisfyingly frequent pace, allowing me to try almost everything immediately. Because when it smells as good as it did in Little Havana, you want it all. Now.
I’ve never been to Cuba, but I like to imagine it’s just like Little Havana, filled with colorful artwork and very understanding hosts telling me that what I’m about to eat is in fact cow tongue, but don’t worry, just eat it, it’s good. I’m not usually a fan of gamier meats, so I was shocked at how palatable the Lengua de Vaca was. If I didn’t know it was cow tongue, I probably would have loved it. The seasoning was really something special, but as I sloshed the lengua in my mouth and thought about how I’m literally tonguing a cow (a cooked, pretty tasty cow) my enjoyment stopped there.
But getting to first base with some beef was as dicey as things got, I soon settled in with more than one helping of a Cuban sandwich (with seriously amazing pickles), a Chimichurri skirt steak that was so buttery-good and some Croquetas de Patatas. I was amazed by how easily these Cubano favorites lended themselves to hors d’ouevres form. If empanadas weren’t made for noshing while sipping the best Mojito I’ve ever had, then I don’t want empanadas with Mojitos (but yes, yes I do want that).
With the evening winding down and the live music from Blanco y Negro moving from a loud roar to a duller one, there was just one more item on my “to try” list: the much buzzed about Piña Colada in the hallowed out pineapple. From the time I walked in, I noticed more than one curious glance at the lavish cocktail, myself included, but dare I be so bold as to walk around with this giant drink? Reader, I was so bold, and let me tell you this is not your average Piña Colada. This was a Piña Colada you want to shout from the rooftops. It’s probably the first of its kind not to give me a headache from the excessive sweetness, and I will be back for more.
“Anyone thinking that life is unfair, needs to know that’s not the case” because you can try all of this and more when Little Havana opens its doors for dinner and drinks (breakfast/brunch/lunch coming soon) on August 10. Come for the drinks in pineapples, stay for the family feels, awesome artwork and delicious dishes.