Finding the "perfect" restaurant for a large Birthday dinner is always an ordeal. It has to be the right balance of affordability (mostly on the drinks end) and, well, yumminess. So when my beautiful friend and blogger of Kiss and Type, Arax, had a 24th birthday rapidly approaching, she enlisted me in her search for the dinner destination.
What's a reasonably-priced restaurant that could seat 15 on a Saturday night that's below midtown?
I started to rack my brain. Where could we go?! With four days to go, this was going to be a challenge.
Then, it occurred to me: Casa Havana. An inexpensive little Cuban restaurant/diner located right in Chelsea. With dishes at around $10 and under and $5 mojitos...Bingo. And what was even better was that the birthday girl and I had already had lunch here the week before! And my pernil sandwich (shredded roasted pork, onions, mayo on cuban bread, lightly pressed) and her avocado salad with black beans and rice had really kinda thrilled us. We kept looking back at each other and saying, "Wait, this is like really, really good."
Now, I warn you, if your birthday boy or girl is ambiance-crazy, this is probably not the place for you. However, the crowd we were rolling with (well, most of them anyways) were not this type. It's kitschy in a good way and we may or may not have been the only "gringos" in the joint but it only added to our experience. Festive, fun, and fantastic food...
After drooling with envy while watching Arax eat her avocado salad and rice and beans (believe me, I'm the last person to order all vegetarian), I knew that I had to have a taste for myself this time around (read: I love Arax but she's no food-sharer). So that's exactly what I did. Along with an octopus salad/ceviche. And what a spread it was! The black beans were exploding with flavor and cooked to the perfect doneness. The white rice too, which I know sounds mundane, was done to an ideal fluffiness and when mixed with the thick, starchy, and aromatic beans was pure and simple done right. The avocado salad was a chunk of iceberg lettuce with half an avocado sliced on top, fresh tomato, and sliced white onion. Served along with red wine vinegar and some olive oil. While this sounds like nothing special, when eaten along with the rice and beans and the octopus salad, it all just melded into one, I'll say it again, perfect bite. The octopus salad was more of a ceviche: extraordinarily tender pieces of octopus (not at all chewy) were tossed in lime juice, olive oil, garlic, GARLIC, diced white onion, chili peppers, and green olives. Really clean flavors yet really complex at the same time. I absolutely ended up mixing it all up on one plate so that I could enjoy all three of them on my fork and into my mouth at once.
My fellow celebrators ordered a mix of different things as well and there were very few complaints, if any, heard round the table. The rounds of margaritas, mojitos, and buckets of Coronitas only added to the experience (Though, I should note, don't come here for the cocktails. Stick with Cervezas.) Oh, and lots 'o laughter added up to a fabulous evening with fabulous friends.
I've never really been one for Cuban food, never been something I've ever gravitated towards, but I couldn't be happier I've been indulging in it as of late. Perhaps it's my yearning for warmer weather because the flavors, sentiments, and sounds of Cuban cuisine really do take you away to a warmer place. It's an instant get-away any day of the week.
So, Happy Birthday again to my sweet Arax (24 is most definitely sexy) and as for the rest of you, hop on the plane, err subway, for a midweek vacation of your own. You won't be sorry you did.
180 8th Ave. (nr. 20th St.)