Timberlake Plaza in Plantation offers neither woods nor a lake, though it does display a collection of small immigrant businesses. On one corner, Doris Italian Market displays biscotti and bags of homemade pasta, while further down, a new Chinese grocery called New York Mart readies to open, its wares explained in two languages. It is in this strip mall that Havana's, a Cuban restaurant that caters to suburban palates, resides.
Havana's Restaurant should not be mistaken for Havana, the sister West Palm Beach favorite with the walk-up window. Yet this place, and its sibling in Cooper City that opened in 2010, is no less congenial. A sliding door recedes to usher customers into a room framed by espresso wood, corrugated metal accents, and plate-glass windows. It's a family-run restaurant for neighborhood folks, a welcome addition in an area replete with chain restaurants run by absentee corporate bosses.
Inside, a baby cries at a ten-top table as her father talks real estate in English. A couple peruses the laminated menu with photos of food that's predominantly Cuban, with a smattering of dishes inspired by Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina. Owned by Cuban Edwin Scheer and partner Michael J. Mellion, who says he's "Cuban by osmosis," the restaurant caters to a community with demographics similar to its sibling's. "Our clientele that's largely Hispanic works in Cooper City and lives in Plantation," says Mellion, which explains the inclusion of dishes from around Latin America.
Low-watt bulbs punctuate light. Under the glass-topped bar, Cuban flags and faded photos display weathered signs that point to the ocean, a personalized touch in an otherwise faux-industrial setting. A young bartender with raven hair hugs herself in an army jacket on a cold night. She speaks Spanish to a couple in a far corner. Los Fabuloso Cadillacs play on Pandora. Servers sing along and ham it up when they catch each other's eye.
Havana's vibe reminds me of Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Set in a restaurant, a server suggests they close early when a fellow waiter notes the old man who drinks brandy there late at night to stave off despondency. The waiter explains that "it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant."
Despite its strip mall attire, the vibe of Havana's makes it the kind of place that provides a distraction from worry, a sense of community, and warmth in an area where it's otherwise absent. Familial foods and gracious service secure its role as a beacon among strip mall staples.
Further east, Fort Lauderdale stalwart Don Arturo once held similar appeal, offering Cuban and Spanish cooking since the 1970s. Yet its allure has waned. A dark dining room offers little in the way of community or cheer, I found, as I poured sangria from a carafe for my friends. Joe Cocker and Journey croon from the radio, one of many signs that this restaurant clings to the past.
Nestled in a cinder-block building, Don Arturo is dark. Gothic chandeliers emit flat light, while red velvet curtains blanket windows. Plaques pepper wood paneling with medieval fighters in full regalia. The cobwebs-meet-garage-sale-décor is depressing. Too much space in between empty tables exacerbates our isolation. We drink with gusto to shift the imposing mood. At least the sangria is bright.
Thankfully, the tamale at Don Arturo is a beautiful display, a cornhusk layered with homemade masa and piled with ribbons of roasted pork. "It's like half a shoulder!" says my friend Harmony, who lives nearby and often takes groups to this relic. The pork is a bit dry, so we ask for lime.
Slow-roasted garlic perfumes our table as a second dish arrives in a cast-iron skillet. The main attraction is the handful of butterflied camarones in green Enchilado sauce. The flavors are lovely, but the shrimp is not. It tastes past fresh, perhaps a sign that there's not enough turnover here. "Something is off," says my friend Lisa. The shrimp lie untouched.
The ropa vieja — the Cuban mainstay of stewed beef with garlic and tomatoes over rice — is what I'd hoped. It's the sofrito that makes the dish: tomatoes, peppers, and onions, seasoned with cumin, garlic, and oregano, all simmered in sherry. Slow cooking for sweetness creates the aromatic and flavorful sofrito, which adds complexity to what could be a one-note dish without it.
Maduros and tostones are delicious at both restaurants, though Havana's offers cilantro sauce for the green plantains, more savory than the sweet maduros, which I prefer.
Back at Havana's, my friend JJ warns me against ordering plates of greatest hits since so many display filler carbs rather than the skill of a chef. Despite him, I order the sabor Latino anyway for its array of classics. Two cigars of croquettes ooze with fresh ham salad when they're sliced open. Starchy fried yucca livens up in an herb dipping sauce. Caramelized onions garnish a heap of masa on a tamale. And a Venezuelan empanada pockets seasoned ground beef in a fried pastry, edged by hand. He's right on the starches, though I enjoy the savory croquettes and the empanada.
After dinner, a waiter sneaks a peek at a ball game as he sings a verse from Manu Chao. I sip a terrific cafe con leche and wish there were sandwiches on the evening menu. I want to come back for a medianoche on the restaurant's sweet bread. Havana's is the kind of clean, well-lighted place that makes me want to stick around.