October 12, 2012 | 11:29am
When Chrissy Benoit told me she had sold Havana Hideout to open her newest venture, The Little House in Boynton Beach, a small part of me panicked. What did that mean for the future of the beloved Lake Worth establishment -- the same place Guy Fieri had targeted for an episode of Diner's, Drive-Ins and Dives, where Justin Bieber had thrown a hissy fit and stiffed a waitress, and my personal favorite spot for sipping sangria in South Florida?
Of course, whenever an establishment changes hands, small (and sometimes totally ridiculously large) tweaks can be expected after the fact. Your favorite appetizer is removed, replaced with something boring. That side sauce you loved so much is altered just enough to make you meloncolly for a condiment. Even your go-to bartender is no longer there, the result of a staff makeover.
But for those of you who like Havana Hidout just the way it is, don't worry: You can still get what Guy got -- all the best menu items, priced affordably between $4 and $11, created by the original owner. However, it's worth noting that a few changes have served to improve the Havana experience, according to newly-appointed Havana consultant and Chrissy's sister, Ginger Benoit. There's a new system of daily prep-work that means almost everything on the menu is "now made fresh daily."
There's also a new system for provisioning the Havana kitchen -- otherwise known as the food truck named Wanda -- to ensure delivery of local produce and menu items, among them a new banana-leaf wrapped Cuban bread from a specialty Cuban bakery in Orlando, and tortilla chips made from a Boynton Beach artisan known for his specialty black bean, pineapple and orange-chocolate tortillas. The black bean version, used at Havana, is fried to create some of the most amazing tortilla chips you'll ever taste. The pineapple are also a great pairing for another semi-new dish, the tropical shrimp tacos served with a fresh mango salsa.
"Best of all, we've also added several new dishes that I'm really excited about," said Benoit, who recently sat down with Clean Plate Charlie to tell us about the new and improved menu that includes vegetarian empanadas, her family's award-winning "fart blossom" chili, and the staff's new favorite paella.
Havana Hideout's new owners aren't just anybody -- they're Shelly Jent and Ben Earheart -- former employees so devoted to the establishment they became its new owners once Chrissy decided to move her focus to Little House last November.
One of the biggest changes the couple has made since taking over operations at Havana can be seen on the drink menu. These days the rotating craft beer list changes frequently, with a new microbrew coming on tap at least once a week, said Benoit. When Clean Plate Charlie stopped by for a look there was also talk of a Due South Brewery tap takeover, with specialty kegs brewed just for the event, slated for the next day.
And making a comeback are Havana's famous pitchers of fruit, basil, and mint-infused housemade sangrias (I was happy to hear the original recipes are still being used), now featuring the option for $1 rum floaters to make an already potent drink even stronger. There's also a new 16-ounce, $6 bloody mary available any time of day.
As for the menu, look for several new items including the staff favorite, paella -- "a true peasant dish" made Havana-style by allowing patrons to customize. Served with toasted Cuban bread on the side, you'll get a giant platter perfect for sharing, a combination of the new house saffron-scented yellow rice accented with red bell pepper, green olives and capers. It's served with shrimp or chicken (or both, for no extra charge), and can be customized to add or replace any ingredient to your liking.
There's also a bowl of pork green chili made by none other than Leslie Benoit, Chrissy and Ginger's uncle. "It's his award winning recipe. [Chrissy and I] love it, but here in South Florida you rarely see a green chili -- they're mostly red chili with beans and beef." Like a traditional green chili, this Southwest version has no beans -- just large cuts of slow-roasted pork the chef dusts with flour and fries in pork fat before adding to the green chili-based stew. Served with fresh-fried tortilla chips and sour cream, it's a hearty meal for $6.
There's also a new tomatillo shrimp ceviche created by a private chef known by Lake Worth locals as "Kai," a neighbor who frequents Havana. Benoit enlisted Kai's help to create a signature ceviche recipe for the restaurant's small plates selections. For $9 you can try this bright green tomatillo, cilantro, lime, and onion-based shrimp ceviche, which Benoit describes as "a burst of sunshine in your mouth," highlighted with a touch of jalapeño for an added kick.
The final addition is a hearty plate of palomas blancas, a dish Chrissy and Ginger "borrowed" from a tiny Mexican establishment located in their former home of Long Beach, California. Similar to enchiladas -- minus the sauce -- the dish is a whopping double serving of flour tortillas filled with seasoned shredded chicken, caramelized onions, green chilis and cream cheese, then smothered in cheddar cheese. The $9 dish comes with a side each of the house salsa fresca and tomatillo salsa.
The pork green chili.
The Kai shrimp ceviche.