Completely Cuban from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
On a quintessential California day, Habana Café fades right into the sky, a blue box of a restaurant triangulated into an awkward corner just off Downey’s Firestone Boulevard. It’s amazing in some respects that a place so nondescript has endured as long as it has—you need only look to the rubble that remains of Johnie’s Broiler for a clue to our societal priorities. Tropicana Bakery, meanwhile, is unmistakable—you can’t miss all the signs flanking the place. The two share a common Cuban cuisine, but what really binds the restaurants is they both afford you the rare opportunity of Latin American menus unencumbered by Mexican meals. Not only that, but between Habana Café and Tropicana Bakery, there exists an actual Cuban corridor pure in its pursuit of basic island flavors.
Habana Café looks like any number of restaurants that came of age during the last of the Reagan years. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors and fat swaths of mauve, plus the obligatory flat-screens and potted plants. But of greater interest is its timeless menu, a complete case study in Cuban cooking. As a whole, Cuban food shares many traits with various Caribbean cuisines—that of Puerto Rico, in particular—and it results in some starch-heavy dishes. Eaters who avidly consume both foods will recognize plenty of overlap, especially in the black beans, rice and perfectly roasted plantains arriving on the side of nearly every Habana entrée.
For the most part, those main plates are reliably good. Dishes like ropa vieja (threads of shredded beef) and lechón asado (roasted pork cut with onions) are easy to like—simple, hearty meats bereft of heat but not of flavor. Similarly, arroz con pollo is another pleasant pick: chicken lodged in a pile of rice spiked with sofrito, the triumvirate of Caribbean cooking centered around garlic, onions and peppers.
Seafood isn’t out of the question here, but you’re probably better off staying on land—stewing and roasting is what Habana does best. Most of these dishes require quite a bit of cooking time, but they ship out quickly—so fast, in some cases, you can’t help but wonder about their potentially readymade preparation. But Habana Café delivers fine staples, nonetheless.
No more than a few turns away is Tropicana Bakery. While there are multiple outposts of the Tropicana Chicken brand, Downey claims the sole Tropicana Bakery, a sleek spot that looks a little more modern, with its fresh paint and swarthy wood.
While Habana Café is a restaurant that also happens to house a bakery, Tropicana is a bakery that incidentally serves a few lunch-like dishes. You can actually eat fairly well on these alone (pressed sandwiches and little empanada-like pastelitos stuffed with everything from cheese to guava), but don’t ignore the bakery’s sweet side.
The desserts here are top-notch: knotty breads and delicate pastries all equally intricate. Everything is presized, so those rum-soaked raspberry tarts and éclairs draped in dulce de leche shouldn’t cause too much guilt. And if you need something to down the desserts, there are batidos tropicales (shakes blended out of mango, mamey, papaya and the like) and steaming cups of Cuban coffee.
Because Habana Café and Tropicana Bakery operate on slightly different ends of the Cuban spectrum (there’s plenty of sweet-and-savory distance between them), the two restaurants mesh very effectively. Downey, however, recently lured Porto’s, a Cuban bakery with branches in Glendale and Burbank, into building a third location downtown. But don’t expect Porto’s to throw off any of that aforementioned balance—soon, there will be enough Cuban food to form its own culinary island.
HABANA CAFÉ 11402 OLD RIVER SCHOOL RD | DOWNEY 90242 | 562.776.7251 | HABANACAFECUBANFOOD.COM | OPEN MON-THURS 7AM-9:30PM | FRI-SAT 7AM-10PM SUN 8AM-9PM | FOOD FOR TWO $15-40 AND TROPICANA BAKERY 10218 PARAMOUNT BLVD | DOWNEY 90241 | 562.806.8343 | OPEN MON-THURS 7AM-9PM | FRI-SAT 7AM-10PM | FOOD FOR TWO $5-15