It’s a bit of a drive, but a nice drive. And if it were really Cuban food, it would be worth it.
Café Habana in Malibu has a dedicated following from its New York roots. And it looks like something that should be in New York rather than Malibu, but that’s nice in a way.
The restaurant is located in the relatively new Malibu Lumber Yard shopping center, which is beautiful. The wood decks are very inviting, there are big tubes with live fish swimming around for the kids to watch, and high-end clothing stores for the high-end Malibu ladies. Lots of high-end stores! There is one very high-end chocolate shop as well, a delicious treat if you can afford it.
The restaurant has a lot of wood and a casual old-fashioned look about it. There is a western-styled bar, some inside tables with a nice high ceiling and an indoor-outdoor feel to it, and a lovely outside enclosed patio. Various old western items (read “junk”) are scattered around to create atmosphere. It was surprisingly busy for a weekday lunch when I was last there.
Fresh chips and a mild sauce were immediately brought to the table, just like in a Mexican restaurant. The service was fast and efficient, but some of the female wait staff had long flowing hair, which is a no-no.
So we come to the food, and that’s the best part. The guacamole was very good. The pulled pork sandwich was one of the best in town, especially the toasted bread which encased the sautéed pork. The corn on the cob with lime juice and parmesan cheese ($4) was an excellent idea worth copying at home. The carne asada was very good, and the fish tacos were brimming over with pieces of fish that surprisingly were not overcooked as in most fast food establishments.
Did I say the food was the best part? Well maybe the prices are right up there on the scale. Sandwiches, burgers, entrees and salads for lunch are between $10 and $12. Dinner entrees range from $8 to $24. And there is a children’s menu. In other words, although the food is high quality, the prices are at the lower end of the scale.
So what’s the bad news? There’s not much Cuban about it. It’s really just another good Mexican restaurant. Where are the delicious soups and stews from Cuba? Where is the ropa vieja (“old clothes”) the shredded beef dish (usually shank) simmered in tomato-based criollo sauce until it falls apart?
If there were real Cuban food there, I would drive out on a regular basis. As it is, there are plenty of equally good Mexican restaurants closer to home. And yet, I’m still savoring that pulled pork sandwich.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org