It would be difficult to question the authenticity of the Habana Cuba restaurant: it was founded by Ciro Calvo, personal chef of the island’s former president Fulgencio Batista, who fled the country when the dictator was overthrown in 1959. It is located in the food SoFA Market on First Street, Habana Cuba faithfully recreates Calvo’s recipes, serving dishes with the simplicity of street food and the taste and quality of a high-end restaurant.
“Some restaurants go out of their way to make your food fantastic,” owner Jennifer Echeverri told the San José Spotlight. “Cuban food is not fancy. It is cooked more slowly – lechon (pork), for example, takes three days to cook. But we try to keep it simple.”
Lechon is the most popular of the meats offered by Habana Cuba. It is marinated in citrus, cumin and garlic, then roasted, cooled for a day, sliced and roasted again in its juice. The process makes the meat insanely tender, moist and flavorful.
Calvo opened Habana Cuba on Race Street in 1994, and Echeverri became a regular soon after, bringing customers there from his smart card business. There were two big attractions that attracted her: the excellent food and falling in love with one of the employees, her future husband, Danny Echeverri.
But there was also a significant problem with the business in the back of her mind — she thought the service was terrible.
“I told Danny, ‘If this place ever comes up for sale, I’d like to buy it and flip it,'” she recalled. “And he said, ‘OK, it’s for sale.’ That’s how I found myself owning a restaurant.
After Echeverri purchased Habana Cuba from Calvo’s family in 2001, the long-retired chef returned to the kitchen to personally train her and her staff in his recipes and techniques. He taught them everything from the toasted and pressed Cuban sandwich made with roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese to the hearty Rabo Encendido, tender oxtail braised in Spanish red wine and an herb tomato base.
One of the key components used in the restaurant is the sofrito, a mixture of green peppers, green olives and onions that are sauteed in tomato juice.
Served as a condiment to some dishes and a key ingredient in others, sauteed with shrimp for Enchilado de Camarones or the sweet cornmeal Tamal Cubano. It forms the basis for the restaurant’s Ropa Viejo, a brisket that’s roasted, hand-sliced and then braised in sofrito until it’s cloud-tender.
The menu also offers a variety of vegetarian and vegan options, clearly marked on the menu, including a three-item platter with a choice of plantains, yuca frita (fried yuca), moros (black beans), ganduli (peas) and rice.
You’ll also find all the usual Caribbean dishes, including Camarones al Ajillo, shrimp sauteed in garlic and served in a white wine sauce with green olives; Scallops Ceviche Marinated in Cucumber Mango Salsa Served with Candy; and empanadas filled with picadillo, a mixture of beef, raisins and olives.
As the holiday approaches, Echeverri offers a special Thanksgiving dinner menu for six, featuring three meats as a main course, accompanied by white rice, beans, plantains and dessert. And with colder days coming, she recommends her seasonal Cuban chicken soup: chicken leg served with noodles, potatoes and corn on the cob in an herb broth for comfort food.
Noel Argote knows Habana Cuba as both a customer and an employee, and was inspired by the cuisine to create his own restaurant, Adelfa’s Comida Cubana, in Boise, Idaho. He said the authenticity of the food is close to that found in the part of Cuba where his father was born.
“When I went there as a customer before Jennifer took over,” he told the San José Spotlight, “I didn’t have the same feeling of being at home. She brought that feeling back again, from the aroma of the coffee to the fried plantains.”
In 2018, following a rent increase, Echeverri moved Habana Cuba from a Race Street sit-down location to a counter service location at SoFA Market. The location serves as a base for her catering business, which recently hosted a 1,000-person party at Levi’s Stadium, and a prep kitchen for her Friday-Monday stand at Vanguard Bingo in Santa Clara.
“We’re still recovering from the pandemic,” she said, “so catering is just saving us right now. Making pork for 1,000 people really helps us keep the doors open here.”
Echeverri said the biggest surprise in transitioning from the corporate world to the restaurant business is how much responsibility comes with the job.
“I work very hard to take care of my employees,” she said. “I have a couple of guys who have been with me for 18 years. I also care about my customers. I’ve seen other places come and go, but I know we’re still open because I treat everyone who works here or eats here like family.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].