Havana Café. Photos by Kathy Tran

Havana Café. Photos by Kathy Tran

Havana Café offers Cuban cuisine, just like owner Ernesto Velez’s mother made it

Ernesto Velez is even more anxious than his customers to open the mojito bar adjacent to Havana Café.

Velez leased the Casa Linda Plaza space next door to his Cuban eatery with plans to serve perfectly crafted cocktails and tapas by August 2016. As months passed and the “mojito bar coming soon” poster remained in the window, restaurant staff and patrons alike grew restless.

“We’re very frustrated,” he says. “Almost every day, somebody asks me, ‘When is the mojito bar opening?’ ”

The long-awaited watering hole has yet to launch because of a City of Dallas code compliance issue, Velez explains. A fire wall separates the café and bar, so it’s against city code to alter the wall. The only way Velez can connect the two spaces is to install sprinklers, an expensive and time-consuming process.

The former owner of Havana Social Club is used to rolling with the punches, and he’s determined to open the mojito bar by June. In the meantime, Velez is focused on the menu’s every detail. He plans to offer a wide selection of rum and serve Cuban, Spanish and African small dishes that cost no more than $10 per plate.

“I just want people to come here and have a good time,” he says.

Neighbors have flocked to Havana Café since its inception five years ago. In a city overflowing with Mexican restaurants, authentic Cuban cuisine was a welcome to change of pace.

“The only difference is ingredients are hard to find,” he says. “Cuban food is more organic.”

The establishment’s simple yet flavorful offerings stem from Velez’s nostalgia for his mother and grandfather’s cooking. Velez’s bestseller is ropa vieja made with lean brisket and sofrito sauce, but his favorite is arroz con puerco, or yellow rice with bites of pork in a sauce of white wine, tomatoes and spices. The pork is roasted for 11 hours every night.

“In this business, the most important thing is just to buy good meat or good ingredients,” he says.

Did you know: Ernesto Velez left Cuba when he was a 23-year-old trombone player in a band, and he’s excited to show off his talents once the mojito bar opens. “In Cuba, you live in a bubble,” he says. “There was only propaganda, so that’s how I decided to get out here.”

Havana Café
Ambiance: Casual eatery
Price Range: $10-$15
Hours: 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 12-7 p.m. Sunday
1152 N. Buckner Blvd., suite J-126

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