Sunday, July 15, 2012

A quiet success on Main Street

The whole red snapper at Casual Habana Cafe is a bargain at $17.

Casual Habana Cafe is a bright spot on one of those blocks in downtown Hackensack that have seen better days.

The Cuban restaurant is flanked by Limon, a large market that closed more than 2 years ago, and a fenced-off building that is being repaired after losing part of its facade last September.

The BYO Casual Habana seems to be having better luck -- its new interior filled with large family groups sharing bottles of wine and beer along with such Cuban classics as whole red snapper and ropa vieja (braised and shredded flank steak).

Avocado Salad includes dry mango and a passion-fruit vinaigrette.

Chicharrones are deep-fried pork rinds.

Twice-fried green plantains are called Tostones.

Three of us shared two salads, three side dishes and an entree -- a whole red snapper that was deep-fried to a crisp, but which remained moist inside ($17).

The fish appeared to be a 2-pounder. It came with two sides, so we asked for a small bowl of soupy black beans and white rice, a combination Cubans call Moors and Christians.

I loved the fried fish, and really enjoyed eating the juicy flesh and crunchy tail.

My wife said a man at the next table was enjoying a seafood dish with shrimp and shellfish, possibly the Caribbean Paella ($15). 

Boiled yuca.

Our side dishes included Boiled Yuca in Garlic ($4), the one item we thought could have been improved.

Our House Salad, with dry papaya and goat cheese, was $5; an Avocado Salad was $6, and Tostones were only $3.

I left the fried pork rinds to the two meat eaters with me ($5), and they enjoyed them. I drank Limonada de Albahaca -- Basil Lemonade ($2.50). Delicious.

The reasonable prices meant three of us ate dinner for about $18 each, including tip and tax. 

However, service is weak. We can understand why the kitchen couldn't keep up with all of the orders from large groups, but we had to ask twice for extra plates and when we added another side dish to our order.

I wanted to take home leftover rice and black beans, as well as two or three pork rinds, but a waiter took the chicharrones into the kitchen and never gave them to us. The rice and beans stayed on the table.

We just wanted to get the check, pay and leave.

I loved the basil-infused lemonade.

I haven't been to Casual Habana for many years, but noticed when it was being renovated. Only the bare brick walls in the dining room were retained.

Since I stopped eating meat, bread and pizza to lose weight, I've stayed away from Cuban food, especially the wonderful Cuban sandwich and white rice.

But our visit to Casual Habana Cafe showed me there are plenty of salad and seafood dishes I can enjoy, and still eat a little of the classic rice-and-beans combination.

The building is the former site of DiSalvo's, a popular fish market and restaurant.

You can find authentic Cuban food behind the modest exterior.

On weekends, reservations are suggested.

Casual Habana Cafe, 125 Main St., Hackensack; 201-880-9844. BYO. $9.50 weekday lunch buffet. Metered street parking.

Web site: Delicious Cuban Food

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