Mike McNally started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher when he was 17. He's 37 now and the head cook. Pokey Wynn and Martie Sanchez have been cooking and expediting in the kitchen for 16 years each. Sara Fernandez has been handling the dining room for not quite that long. The mural by Gulfport muralist Keith Stillwagon has been preserved for two decades, the Florida flora and fauna faded but never painted over. And on the website, a plucky but amateurish organ rendition of that old chestnut La Bamba provides the nostalgic soundtrack.
Habana Cafe in Gulfport has been around. To be precise, it celebrated 20 years in May, making it one of the elder statesmen in Gulfport, located about a mile from the city's burgeoning restaurant row. When it debuted, Cuban food had a stronghold in parts of Tampa, but not so much in Pinellas County. It was the birthright and vision of Josefa "Jo" Gonzalez Hastings, who took over a charming two-story old house that had previously hosted a California wrap restaurant and coin laundry called Charlie Bubbles.
Jo and her aunt, Alina Gonzalez, aimed to debut a moderately priced restaurant showcasing family recipes from the Habana and Oriente regions of Cuba — picadillo and Oriente-style lechon asado. Their audience had a steep learning curve: Your sign is spelled wrong, they said. (Havana is the Anglicized version of the word Habana.) What's a boliche, they said.
Visit these days and it looks like a room full of regulars, many placing orders for a go-to dish they've been devoted to for years. It's a comfortable two-level space, the first floor festooned with a huge world map, mounted restaurant reviews and accolades, and wide, double-decker windows. Upstairs a balcony level is a bit more intimate, rendered more romantic by strings of white twinkly lights.
A single sheet of nightly specials is tucked inside the laminated menu, the combination providing a fair bit of reading. If decisionmaking doesn't come easy, the way to go is the Rand McNally Best of the Road Sampler Platter ($19.95), which brings a sectioned plastic tray, not exactly elegant, containing a broad array of what has made Habana Cafe such a landmark in Gulfport.
There's a heap of lechon asado, slow-simmered pulled pork with a discernible limey tang and a lot of oregano. In another section you may find a buttery, lemony shrimp picatta, simple but sumptuous and dotted with capers, and in still another there is a small serving of sauteed chicken breast strips napped in a cream sauce with fresh dill, artichoke hearts, sliced button mushroom and bits of chive. But wait, there's more: a molded disc of white rice with a tiny plastic ramekin of chopped white onion, a bowl of textbook black beans and a couple of deeply caramelized fried plantains. Oh, and a small iceberg house salad, straightforward vinaigrette on the side. Whew, you're taking home leftovers.
I'm not going to lie. I think Habana Cafe's sangria is too sweet and a little pedestrian, but there are touches that are hard not to love, like the hot pressed Cuban bread, crispy and buttery on the outside, pillowy within. (It's a sauce-centric restaurant, so you will be dipping this early and often.) And the picadillo ($11.95), deeply savory ground beef dotted with green olives and raisin, which tastes like the best kind of home cooking.
But I think what has kept the restaurant going, aside from Hastings and her warm and occasionally feisty staff of veterans, is this: the cream cheese flan ($5.95). There's a traditional flan ($4.95), with its just-bitter caramel pool a perfect foil for cafe con leche ($2.50 small). But the cream cheese version, richer, denser, more velvety, once won Hastings $10,000 in Southern Living's annual cookoff. It's not that pedigree that has people coming back for meals at Habana Cafe — it's just that everybody likes happy endings.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.