It would be hard to question Habana Cuba Restaurant’s authenticity: it was founded by Ciro Calvo, the personal chef to the island’s former president, Fulgencio Batista, who fled the country when the dictator was deposed in 1959. Located inside First Street’s SoFA Market food hall, Habana Cuba faithfully recreates Calvo’s recipes, serving dishes with street food simplicity and high-end restaurant taste and quality.
“Some restaurants go out of their way to make your food fancy,” owner Jennifer Echeverri told San José Spotlight. “Cuban food is not fancy. It is more slow-roasted—the lechon (pork) for example, takes three days to make. But we try to keep everything simple.”
The lechon is the most popular of the meats Habana Cuba offers. It is marinated in citrus, cumin and garlic, then baked, cooled down for a day, cut up and baked again in its juices. The process makes the meat insanely tender, moist and flavorful.
Calvo opened Habana Cuba on Race Street in 1994, and Echeverri became a regular customer soon after, bringing clients there from her smart card business. There were two great attractions that drew her: the excellent food and falling in love with one of the employees, her future husband, Danny Echeverri.
But there was also, in her mind, a significant problem with the business—she thought the service was terrible.
“I told Danny, ‘If this place ever comes up for sale, I would love to buy it and turn it around,’” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, it is for sale.’ So I found myself owning a restaurant.”
After Echeverri bought Habana Cuba from Calvo’s family in 2001, the long-retired chef returned to the kitchen to personally train her and her staff on his recipes and techniques. He taught them everything from the grilled and pressed Cuban sandwich, made with roasted pork, ham and Swiss cheese to the hearty Rabo Encendido, fall-off-the-bone tender oxtail braised in Spanish red wine and herbal tomato base.
One of the key components used at the restaurant is the sofrito, a blend of green bell peppers, green olives and onions that have been sautéed in herbed tomato juice.
It is served as a condiment with some dishes and is a key ingredient in others, sautéed with prawns for the Enchilado de Camarones or the sweet cornmeal Tamal Cubano. It forms the base for the restaurant’s Ropa Viejo, brisket that has been baked, shredded by hand and then simmered in the sofrito until it is as tender as a cloud.
The menu also offers a variety of vegetarian and vegan options, clearly marked on the menu, including a three-item platter with a choice of plantains, yuca frita (fried yucca), moros (black beans), gandules (pigeon peas) and rice.
You will find all of the usual Caribbean dishes as well, including Camarones al Ajillo, prawns sautéed in garlic and served in a white wine sauce with green olives; Ceviche prawns marinated in cucumber mango salsa and served with tostones; and empanadas filled with picadillo, a mix of beef, raisins and olive.
As the holiday approaches, Echeverri is offering a special Thanksgiving dinner menu for six, including three meats as a main course, accompanied by white rice, beans, plantains and a dessert. And with cold days coming on, she recommends her seasonal Cuban chicken soup: a chicken drumstick served with noodles, potatoes and corn on the cob in a comfort-food herbal broth.
Noel Argote knows Habana Cuba as both a customer and an employee and was inspired by the cuisine to create his own restaurant, Adelfa’s Comida Cubana, in Boise, Idaho. He said the authenticity of the food is close to that found in the part of Cuba where his dad was born.
“When I went there as a customer before Jennifer took over,” he told San José Spotlight, “I didn’t have the same feeling of being home. She brought that feeling back again, from the aroma of the coffee to the fried plantains.”
In 2018, following a rent increase, Echeverri moved Habana Cuba from the sit-down location on Race Street to a counter-service spot in the SoFA Market. The location serves as the base for her catering business, which recently handled a 1,000-person tailgate party at Levi’s Stadium, and the prep kitchen for her Friday-through-Monday stand at Vanguard Bingo in Santa Clara.
“We are still recovering from the pandemic,” she said, “so catering is just saving us right now. Making pork for 1,000 people really helps us keep the doors open here.”
Echeverri said the biggest surprise in moving from the corporate world to the restaurant business was how much responsibility came with the job.
“I work very hard to take care of my employees,” she said. “I have a couple of guys who have been with me for 18 years. And I also take care of my customers. I have seen other places come and go, but I know we are still open because I treat everyone who works here or eats here like family.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].