I have to give up trying to find a Cuban restaurant in California, maybe even outside of New Jersey and South Florida. Quixotic would be the word that applies most accurately to my search. That said, my quest generally turns up pleasant enough benefits that more than make up.
This time at Habana in Costa Mesa, California, with a menu that advertised the cuisine as Cuban, the big prize was the discovery of a patio on which one can enjoy a great cigar with a great dark rum.
I was in Irvine, California, having to spend the night at the airport Hilton so that I could get up early enough on a Saturday morning to chat with about 40 members of the sales force of my restaurant company's meat supplier. I mainly told jokes about meat. (So, as Groucho Marx told it, the waiter comes over to the gentleman having lunch and asks, "And how did you find your steak, sir?" The gentleman answers, "Well, quite by accident actually. I moved this tomato slice and there it was." Supply your own rim-shot here.)
So, with a Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series smoke in my pocket and a free Friday night in the O.C., I called a friend and we went in search of Cuban food and a place to have a cigar after dinner. Habana promised both opportunities and was true to the note on the menu that says, "Cigar smoking is allowed only between the hours of 2 to 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. to closing." We got there at about 8:45 p.m. and sat at the bar.
My friend ordered a "mojito classico"[sic], just to try it and see how it compares to other restaurants. Weak, but when he asked for more lime, the bartender obliged. I got a Flor de Caña 12-year old on the rocks. Big points to the restaurant for having several, very good premium dark rums.
We ordered. Stuffed pork croquettes were round, each of the two slightly smaller than a tennis ball. The filling was a "roasted pork and manchego cheese." The deep-fried orbs sat on a "fire-roasted tomato salsa." The pork was tender enough. The manchego was visible in that it had melted in a few small lumps and not really been integrated with the pork.
The entrées are more related to South American and Spanish cuisine than Cuban. My friend got the ropa vieja. He wanted to compare it to the one I make. He liked it. The dish had all the requisite ingredients, though the seasoning was much milder than many you'll have. I ordered the "Skirt Steak — Estilo Churrasco." The beef was good, but a little bit mild in flavor. The description indicated the meat had first been smoked, then grilled and topped with chimichurri.
If you're in the area around John Wayne Airport and want to have a cigar after dinner, Habana is a good destination. With that cigar, you might want to have good dark rum. Habana actually offers a "Rhum Flight" for $19. Three "premium añejo sipping rums (1 oz/ea)." Not a bargain, but aside from the spelling of "rhum," certainly in the right spirit, no pun intended. The atmosphere here is quite nice. There is a silent video loop of Cuban scenes playing on one wall.
You should be aware that Habana is part of a complex called "The Lab, an Anti-Mall." It has some very interesting, funky shops and, like most places in the O.C., too little parking.
Ultimately, you're going to make out best at Habana if your desire is to have that after-dinner cigar on the patio. That, in California and in a lot of other places these days, is just the right recipe for a fine evening.
2930 Bristol St Ste A110
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Important Notes: Allows cigar smoking on the patio between 2 and 5 p.m.; 10 p.m. to closing. The food is not exactly Cuban and the place is a better bar than restaurant.