One of the more interesting sides of the bad economy is that lots of construction in the Valley has ground to a halt. Much of the debate over the redevelopment of the heart of Arcadia at 44th Street and Camelback seems to have quelled a bit as people focus more on whether or not the economy will from bad to worse.
I am not privy to the development plans of the area around 44th Street, but I know that the little strip of businesses on the south side of Camelback just west of 44th Street is slated to be added to the dust bin of architectural history in the very near future. The current monetary woes may or may not have pushed those plans back.
In the meantime, Eric over at Eric Eats Out suggested we check out Havana CafÃ© and since I had never been to the place (despite its relative close proximity to my home) I figured I should try it before it disappears. So, we made plans to meet at 6 PM sharp and I arrived to find Eric directing me to a table he had already secured.
The place wasnâ€™t particularly busy, but the interior was cozy and inviting. We took our seats and had water on the table in a matter of moments. We were handed menus by either a floor manager or the owner and were told he would be with us shortly. After Eric and I had chatted for a while, we finally turned our attention to the menus and decided to start with a couple of appetizers to share, followed by our entrees.
We had come to the conclusion that the Frituras de Camarones ($9.50) would be a good start, followed by the Papa Rellena ($6.50). We were ready to pick our entrees when I mentioned the Peruvian prix fixe menu on the inside of the cover for the menu. For $19.99, we would get a choice of soup or salad, choice of entrÃ©e and cake for dessert. Although we were in a Cuban restaurant, we decided that anything on the menu was fair game and both decided to have the prix fixe Peruvian menu. I decided to have the soup, the chicken with vegetables and rice and the cake. Eric went with the soup as well, the veal stew with rice and the cake.
Our server took our orders and returned with our drinks of a Diet Coke and an Iced Tea ($2.00 each). We were first presented with a basket of fresh bread and foil-wrapped pats of butter. The bread was quite good with a slightly chewy exterior and a soft and salty interior. The only thing I didnâ€™t like was the rock hard butter that was served with the bread.
Within about 10 minutes, our appetizers arrived. The Frituras de Camarones were three golden pancakes of shrimp and vegetables surrounding a small ramekin of a chutney made of almonds, sherry and pimentos. The patties were hot and crispy. Shrimp had been diced and then mixed with various vegetable in a batter before being cooked in oil. I was a bit caught off guard by how lacking in flavor the appetizer was. I couldnâ€™t detect the briny nature of the shrimp and the patties themselves were a tad oily. Even the chutney didnâ€™t add much of a dimension to the patties. I know that Cuban food is not the spiciest on the planet, but this just seemed to lack any particular nuance that would want me to order it again.
Our second appetizer â€“ the Papa Rellenas â€“ arrived and two potato balls were presented in a small boat topped with a creamy lime and cilantro sauce. These were much better than the shrimp appetizer. Beef picadillo in a potato crust was a winner for me.. I liked the somewhat crisp shell and was pleased with the dish all the way around. This made up for what the shrimp lacked.
Next up was the Peruvian Soup. This was excellent. It was hearty, chocked full of vegetables, pork and bursting with flavor. I was so happy with this small cup of soup and had a passing thought that a big bowl of this soup with a hunk of baguette would be a wonderful lunch. I did wish it had been a tad hotter, but it didnâ€™t mar the final product.
Our entrees arrived and I was very happy with the portion size of my chicken dish. The dish itself consisted of chicken, various vegetables and some chiles in a mild glaze and a smattering of peanuts. My first taste had distinct Asian overtones and then I was reminded that Peru has a very sizable Asian community (as did Cuba at one time for that matter) and so I wasnâ€™t surprised. The dish, however, was much richer in scope than a lot of Asian food. The chicken was tender and moist and the vegetables were tender-crisp which gave the dish a nice crunch throughout. I also liked the fact that the dish had a nice kick to it on the palate. The rice was excellent and plentiful. All in all, this was a very pleasant and solid dish. There was nothing spectacular about it, but it had a good flavor and substantial.
Eric had requested that we refrain from discussing our food during the meal to see our reactions after-the-fact. Although the picture above is a shot of his meal, he wanted to wait until I finished my review before adding his thoughts. (Please check out his blog over at Eric Eats Out for his take on the meal, which will be posted on 9/24/08.)
After our entrees were finished we ran into a bit of trouble. After an inordinate wait, we were presented with dessert menus which we found odd since the prix fixe menu only had one dessert on it which was the Peruvian Cake. After another long wait we finally flagged down one of the floor staff and mentioned that we had the Peruvian menu so we werenâ€™t sure if there had been a miscommunication.
A few minutes later, our server arrived with two pieces of cake. Actually, they were quite large pieces. The large slice was sitting in a puddle of a vanilla creme and topped with whipped cream. Eric and I both dove in and I did not like the cake at all. It wasnâ€™t horrible, but it was incredibly dense and exceptionally dry. I was following each bite with a gulp of water or soda. I will admit that I liked the taste of the cake with its light vanilla flavor and a lightly sweet taste. However, I just couldnâ€™t get past the density and dryness. I left a little less than half on my plate. I notice that Eric didnâ€™t finish his either, but we didnâ€™t discuss why.
With the meal finished, we requested our bill. As for the service, it was all over the place. While our drinks were kept filled, the long stretches between entrees and ordering dessert and then ordering to getting dessert were uncomfortable. Additionally, our server seemed to either be surly or having a bad night. We split the bill and said our good nights.
Overall, I would sum up the evening as â€œuneven.â€ The conversation and company were better than the soup which was better than the entrees which were better than the appetizer which were better than the dessert. There were enough items on the menu at Havana CafÃ© that I would be tempted to go back. I did wonder if the impending demise of the place was affecting the tone of the kitchen and staff. Who knows?
It is always great spending time with a fellow food blogger and discussing the latest food finds in the Valley. I only wish our overall food and service experience had been a bit better.
4225 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Dress: Resort casual – although they do not allow tank tops and cutoffs.
Hours: Monday through Thursday – 11 AM to 9:30 PM; Friday and Saturday – 11 AM to 10 PM; Sunday – 4 PM to 9:30 PM.
Notes: Parking is limited. Additional locations in Scottsdale and Ahwahtukee.
Alcohol: Full bar and lots of Cuban drink specials.