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Circuit Court New York

Café Habana
17 Spring Street/Elizabeth St.
New York, NY
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Outside looking in.Today was 97 degrees here in New York City, with a heat index of over 105. Had flashbacks of my Thailand experience as I walked along the steaming street — who knew that concrete had such a memory for odors? A tough day to be walking around the city doing errands, but hey, even us magistrates have to get off the bench for a little while.

I decided to stop in Nolita, the nexus of cools past and future, to do a little beautiful people watching, and see if they handle heat any cooler than I do. For those unfamiliar, geographically, Nolita is the area just east of SoHo and north of the lower east side. Psychographically, Nolita is somewhere between "I just bought these sandals for $400," and "I’ll just gouge gaping holes in my sneaks."

Café Habana rests on the corner of Prince and Mott streets, its unglorious aluminum facade framing model and actor types sitting at the counter along the windows. This is (obviously) Cuban food. And while I can’t vouch for authenticity, I can say that everything is served more neatly and less greasily than at other Cuban joints I’ve experienced (most of which are also named some permutation of the name Habana). Adjacent to Café Habana is a smaller take-out restaurant. It serves the exact same menu, but has only window counter seating and a small table or two. I saw how crowded the main restaurant was, and decided that the take-out side might be a more pleasant experience. I would soon prove my intuition horribly wrong.

Cuban Sandwich!The small take-out room, while cute and sunny, was too sunny and not cute enough to make up for a lack of air conditioning. I ordered a grilled chicken torta from the menu (mainly a selection of tortas and burritos with any mixtures of chicken, pork and beef) and a refreshing Jarritos brand Mandarin soda. The sandwich came quickly off the grill. The bread had a beautifully crisp texture and taste to it. Inside, the chicken was fresh, and was complemented by lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and black beans. The first bite was delicious, as was the second and third. But, sitting at the window in the heat of the sun, this little magistrate couldn’t think straight anymore. Looking around, I noticed that none of the beautiful people had broken a sweat. Cool as cucumbers. Case closed.

Now, I’ve been to Café Habana a number of times, and while this particular meal was mostly a failure, I still recommend the place, with a few reservations and recommendations. Namely:

• If you like the scene and don’t mind substandard service, then by all means, enjoy dinner there or brunch there. Yes, all of the waitstaff are a pleasing eyeful, but this is also a cheap (sandwiches are filling and hover around the $6 - $7 mark) and fast place, so they don’t even have to pretend to treat you right. I’d rather be served by Lurch, or Carrot Top.

• If you’re into sandwiches, it’s hard to beat the standard Cuban Sandwich -- a mixture of shredded chicken, ham, cheese and, I think, mustard, on that tasty Cuban bread.

• The single most reliable and raved about item on the menu is the grilled corn. It’s an appetizer (and only $2), but I bet that after eating one, you’ll just want to order more and skip the rest of the meal. The recipe is simple: grill a corncob on a skewer, add some grated cheese, and a dash of hot pepper on top, serve to small drooling magistrate. I can’t tell you how many people walk out of there happily, with a cheese-moustache souvenir. Both Che and Fidel would be proud to see it.


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