Traditional Dives draw crowds for the food, not the style. Cafe Habana, in the generally trendy SoHo, lives by these rules. The store front on the Corner of Elizabeth and Prince used to be occupied by a Dominican Diner in the 1990’s, before the change of ownership and Cuban facelift in 1998. Besides a few decorations on the wall, it still has that diner feel with a long metal bar with swivel chairs in the front and cushioned booths and metal tables filling the narrow, cramped space.
It’s simple, it’s Cuban and the crowds are willing to wait hours for a table. On hot, sticky weekday night, we were happy to be met with only a half-hour wait. Similar to most New York restaurants, they won’t seat you until your entire party arrives, so we anxiously awaited the arrival of our fourth, hoping that our table would stay secure in the meantime. Fortunately, everything worked out, as we were lead to the middle back of the restaurant, right next to the air conditioning.
We sat in a booth, reminiscent of any diner you’ve been to in your hometown. The window to the kitchen right across the small walkway from our booth, giving us a sneak peak of all of the dishes.
On the hot summer day, it was necessary to order drinks immediately. They have slushie versions of Mojito and Margaritas, but unfortunately the Mojito machine wasn’t functioning that day. I decided to order a regular Mojito on the rocks, which was light, fresh and full of light rum. It was exactly what I needed on a hot day.
First thing’s first before you even look at the menu, you know you need to order the Mexican corn. Every single table is seen munching on this bright, big ears of corn on a stick smothered in cheesy goodness. These are the real deal, so much so that Tyler Florence featured them on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate.
The corn is grilled until it’s charred and blistered, then they add the stick, and smother the outside with a creamy mayonnaise. Then they coat the entire ear of corn with cotija cheese followed by a generous sprinkling of chile piquin to give a little bit of spice and color. It arrives at your table with two orders, so you can be nice and share. It’s spicy, sour, salty, sweet, fresh, crunchy, totally messy and out of this world. They serve the corn with a big pile of napkins and toothpicks for a somewhat easy clean up, since you know kernels will be stuck between your teeth and the combo of mayonnaise and cheese will cover your face.
After going back and forth for far too long, I ultimately decided to order the Cuban Sandwich, while Dan went for the Grilled Shrimp Taco. I stared at the menu after ordering, quickly asking the waitress if I could substitute the fries for rice and beans. She smiled and happily said yes. Done and done. I sat back sipping my mojito finally content with my food decision.
Turns out, I was the ultimate winner of the food ordering game. The waitress originally forgot to substitute my fries for rice and beans, happily bringing a side order for me, without any charge, allowing us to have both.
The Cuban Sandwich is one of the greatest things to grace the menu. The crispy, panini bread is smother with chipotle mayo giving a smokey spice to every bite of the sandwich. The fatty, slightly sweet and tangy pulled roast pork melts in your mouth, letting the rest of the ingredients add texture. The pork is for pure flavor, which is juicy and cooked right. The ham adds a little smokiness flavor from the flat top, but mainly just adds another sweet meatiness. The thinly sliced, light pickle adds crunch and acidity to cut through what would really be a heavy sandwich. It’s finally rounded out with the piece of salty swiss cheese, which is hardly melted. Point blank, I haven’t been to Cuba, but this is a damn good version of the Cuban Sandwich.
If you are in the mood for a little bit of lighter flare, the Grilled Shrimp Tacos are a phenomenal alternative.
The corn tortillas are slightly toasted, but full of that masa flavor you so desperately need with a taco. The charred shrimp, which is marinated in fresh herbs, stands out as the star. The pieces of shrimp are small, but numerous, and bound to the tortilla by the thick layer of guacamole. The shaved cabbage and pico de gallo add crunch and freshness to the taco. It’s an ideal light dinner.
When the bill arrived, all of us could hardly move, were a little buzzed, and I had left overs for a late night snack. The entire meal was shockingly inexpensive, especially in one of Manhattan’s more notoriously high-end neighborhoods. The food here, especially the Corn and Cuban sandwich, are out of this world and would easily draw anyone back. They have a to-go restaurant, making it really easy if you want a quick fix without having to wait for a table. Seriously, if you like corn, cuban food, and saving a few bucks, it’s a no brainer that you need to check this restaurant out.
Cafe Habana – 17 Prince Street – New York, NY
Type: Cuban, Mexican
Perfect For: Authentic Dining, Quick Bite, Drinks, Cheap Eats
Reservations: Not Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Mexican Corn, Cuban Sandwich