Havana Central at The West End
With Bo away on a school trip, Co and I decided to hit the town last night, and after getting shut out of the new Asian-Mexican place China de Puebla on 123rd Street ("Closed: Private Party"), we wound up at the newest outpost of Havana Central, right in the thick of Columbia University territory.
Now, there's a lot of history to this place: for nearly 100 years this spot was home to The West End, which Diana Trilling called "the dim waystation of undergraduate debauchery on Morningside Heights"... where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg held court in the 1950s... and where yours truly did much of his underage bar drinking. The layout is pretty much the same as I remembered it from all those years ago (big island bar, booths to the right, back room where most of the damage was done), but now everything has a fresh coat of "tropical" orange paint and the menu reads like a syllabus for Cuban Food 101.
After scoping out the interior for (my) old times' sake, Co and I snagged an outdoor table and ordered a bunch of things to split. The most obvious items to get were really pretty bad: a flavorless, greasy, un-reheated Beef Picadillo Empanada; a completely under-pressed Classic Cuban Sandwich, the bread barely toasted, the bland cheese unmelted, the ham and pork cold and tasteless. I rarely like Sweet Potato Fries, and nothing about the mushy pile that came as a side here changed my mind. It seems foolish that the kitchen obviously paid so little attention to the dishes people are most likely to order, but what do I know...
Then—surprise!—the more unusual dishes were real winners. The soup of the day, described by our happy waitress as "Mushroom and Jalapeño", was packed with firm, well-cooked button 'shrooms, punctuated by crunchy chunks of yucca, all soaked in a rich, woodsy broth with just a hint of Jalapeño heat. Nicely done, this. And our half-rack of Havana-Style BBQ Pork Ribs was tender, juicy, wonderfully sweet, and slathered in a surprisingly subtle Mango Habanero Ginger Sauce. The red beans and yellow rice were also quite good, though I was sad to see so many raw onions in with the juice.
Havana Central is located on Broadway between 113th and 114th. The place was crowded, loud, and, given all the sangria and mojitos being drained around us, it seems that the nights still get as festive as they ever did.