Boston’s residential neighborhoods are dotted with modest little outposts of terrific Latin Caribbean cuisine, with its beguiling fusion of native, European and African flavors. Finding that food with a bit of upmarket atmosphere is tougher. Restaurateurs Hector and Nivia Piña first filled that vacuum when they opened Roxbury’s Merengue, Boston’s most glamorous Dominican restaurant, more than 20 years ago. Their second restaurant, the South End’s Vejigantes, opened in 2012, serving Puerto Rican food and cocktails with similar verve and polish. Their newest, Doña Habana, brings the same flash and sex appeal to the service of Cuban cuisine in a pair of beautiful, festive dining rooms near Boston Medical Center.
Stepping into Doña Habana from the grim, gritty no man’s land surrounding the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass is a Dorothy-awakening-in-Oz moment. The stunning space features zebrawood floors, walls covered with vivid photo-realistic murals of bygone Havana street scenes and accents of sea and sunset colors; the front end of a pre-Revolución ’57 Chevy in Tropical Turquoise paint protrudes from one mural. Cuban music bounces on the stereo, and the rooms frequently hum with the fizzy, joyful chatter of large-party wedding showers and quinceañeras.
With a bar in each dining room, the party atmosphere is underscored by a fat drinks menu featuring 53 mojito variants ($11-$13), a bevy of margaritas ($11-$12, $20 for a version set on fire) and hot-climate cocktails like a nicely executed caipirinha ($12), the unsurprisingly sweet Saoco ($12) of sugar cane juice and rum and the Guantanamo ($12), a rum-and-citrus potion given a butterscotch accent with amaretto. There are large-format drinks like La Paloma ($85 for a 96-ounce bowlful), red and white sangrias ($11/glass, $25/pitcher), a short list of pedestrian macro beers ($5-$6) and a modest 30-bottle wine list ($8-11/glass, $28-$125/bottle, most under $60), many of them sparklers. Caffeinators can turn to serviceable if not very strong Cuban coffees ($2-$5) like the lagrima ($4), a 1-to-3 mix of coffee and hot milk. Celebratory drinking is a clear priority here.
Chef Roberto Niubo’s menu covers a broad range of traditional Cuban foods, starting with a small-bites section that makes for marvelous, shareable drinking food. Crisp-shelled, barely oily empanadas ($8 for two) with mildly spiced fillings of chicken, pork or beef offer a promising start. Chicharrónes de puerco ($8) are a delectable pile of crispy, skin-on cubes of pork belly. The fiercely garlicky mojo sauce served with the long, skinny plantain chips that are mariquitas ($7) could make cardboard seem tasty. Croquetas de jamón ($8) are a classic bar snack: finely chopped ham in creamy bechamel wrapped in a crunchy deep-fried breadcrumb coating. Mini cubanitos ($12) present the classic Cuban sandwich of roast pork, ham, pickles and Swiss cheese as three sliders on softish rolls, but need more yellow mustard. La caleta ($22) fills four plantain cups with shredded beef, ground beef, garlic shrimp and fried shredded beef, a nice array of bright and savory flavors.
Entrees demonstrate less consistency. Tamal en cazuela ($10), a homely, substantial bowl of cornmeal porridge topped with big chunks of roast pork, yields surprising depth of flavor: delicious and satisfying. Caldo de mariscos y pescado ($26) is a pretty seafood stew of shrimp and squid with a big, handsome, whole red snapper in the middle, but the wan tomato broth is underseasoned, the advertised lobster apparently replaced sans notice with mussels. Rancho guajiro ($20), slow-roasted pork shoulder atop starchy batons of yuca frita (fried cassava), leaves on enough fat to counter its slightly overcooked dryness, but the onions are half-raw, showing none of the expected caramelization. Mercifully, ropa vieja ($16), braised shredded flank steak with sauteed red peppers, aromatics and sofrito, is superb: tender and vibrantly flavored. Included sides like tostones (flattened, crisp-fried slices of unripe plantains) or black beans with white rice are likewise excellent, as is a casserole of garbanzos fritos con chorizo ($10), chickpeas sauteed in tomato sauce with good kielbasa-like sausage.
Every party needs a sweet ending, so the short list of desserts includes pudín de pan y dulce de leche ($8), a Cuban-style slice of firm, sticky-sweet bread pudding, and hojaldre de guayaba ($6), a tender turnover of choux pastry filled with guava chunks. Then there’s El Capitolio ($15), the scorpion bowl of Cuban desserts, an insane-looking tower of ice cream and chocolate syrup in a mug topped with two donuts, whipped cream and M&M’s.
Service is sweet and amiable, but waitstaff and the kitchen appear to struggle at times to pay equal attention to smaller parties when a bigger celebration is going on. We noticed long waits between courses on more than one visit, ingredients going missing (where are the grilled onions on our chicharrónes?), difficulty procuring basics (like sharing bowls for the caldo) and lukewarm empanadas. This is the Piñas’ largest restaurant yet, and nearly three months in, some scaling issues clearly persist. Burnish out these rough edges, and Doña Habana may graduate from the place everyone goes to celebrate Abuelita’s 80th birthday or tear it up on weekend nights over bocadillos, drinks and music, to a cultivator of loyal weeknight regulars. Doña Habana is an endearing, gorgeous, incredibly vivacious lady; she just needs to work on a few of her dance steps.
-Croquetas de jamón
-Tamal en cazuela
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11 am-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 11 am-1 am; Sun., 11 am-10 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Free with validation in the nearby Crosstown Center Garage Liquor: Full bar
Doña Habana, 811 Mass. Ave. (entrance on Northampton St.), Boston (617-708-0796) facebook.com/donahabana