It’s 9 o’clock on Friday night. The 200-seat Havana Kitchen is buzzing with energy.
The bar and two main dining areas are nearly full of guests enjoying traditional Cuban dishes like tostones, plantains, and whole fried red snapper. The six-piece Son del Callao Latin band entertains diners who are noticeably struggling to sit still in their seats. Resistance to the beat will eventually prove futile for some.
After about 15 minutes, a couple of brave souls wind their way through the jam-packed dining room toward the open area in front of the band. They are clearly not first-time salsa dancers.
Seated guests cheer and continue bobbing in the audience, many of the men looking nervous as their female counterparts reach for their hands to coerce them to the dance floor. After about 30 more minutes, several succeed, and half a dozen couples join in what has become a Friday night ritual at the restaurant that opened in December.
Frank Roman, co-owner, says this – the dancing, the cheering, and the looks of sheer joy on guests’ faces – is exactly what he and partner Lazaro Montoto envisioned when they set out to create an homage to their Cuban heritage in Havana Kitchen.
Once the weather turns less rainy, Roman says he plans to take the party outside to host Miami-style block parties in the sizable parking lot to include even more people.
The 7,200-square-foot restaurant from the owners of Tropical Grille opened about three months ago at 1133 Woodruff Road, which had been vacant since Mimi’s Cafe closed in 2014. The Woodruff Road construction other nearby restaurants have cited as detrimental to their business hasn’t seemed to have stunted Havana Kitchen’s ability to attract customers.
Roman believes it’s because the restaurant fills a void in the Greenville restaurant community — combining traditional Cuban fare with the atmosphere and hospitality of a Miami family restaurant in a mainstream environment that is approachable to non-Spanish speakers is, so far, unique in Greenville.
And if guests come for the fiesta vibe, they likely stay for the authentic flavors that may be unfamiliar to the average Southern diner, but tasty enough to make stretching their palates a pleasure.
While it may go without saying, it’s worth noting: Cuban food and flavors are different from those of traditional Mexican cuisine. The basic premise, however, is similar — simple ingredients; bold, fresh flavors; and distinct processes for developing those flavors. Modern Cuban cuisine blends Spanish, African, and Caribbean cuisines.
The Havana Kitchen menu is a reflection of the owners’ food memories from growing up in Miami.
For starters, the Tostones Sampler showcases those authentic flavors and processes. Three tostones, twice-fried plantain slices, are topped with three meats – ropa vieja (shredded beef brisket), lechon (pork), and picadillo (Cuban-style ground beef).
Yucca (a starchy root vegetable) and plantains (savory bananalike fruit that must be cooked before it is eaten) are Cuban cuisine staples. The Havana Kitchen menu includes multiple preparations from fried to boiled as sides and components in various dishes. They are a must-try.
The menu also features eight sandwiches, vegetarian dishes, numerous beef entrees of various preparation from pan-fried to grilled, pork three ways, the classic arroz con pollo and three additional chicken entrees, 10 sides, three salads, and soup. About half the menu is labeled gluten-free.
The seafood, however, all sustainably wild-caught and sourced fresh, stands out.
The whole fried red snapper, a Caribbean classic, is enough to share with the table, and the authentic Cuban paella with chorizo, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, calamari, and fish over seasoned rice is enough for twice as many people as the recommendation (for 2, $29.99, or for 4, $54.99).
Traditional Cuban pastries and desserts are available all day, along with Cafe Bustelo espresso.
As for the bar program, if more than two dozen whiskeys and bourbons at reasonable prices doesn’t pique interest, perhaps the 15 specialty mojitos will. Thirteen of them are available by the pitcher, proving, once again, that Havana Kitchen is designed to be a gathering place, not a solo dining venture.
Havana Kitchen, 1133 Woodruff Road, is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 9 a.m.-midnight Saturday, and 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.