Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Washington Heights for Chicharron and more.
Havana Heights is a big, boisterous neighborhood restaurant and bar that opened a couple of weeks ago right in center of Washington Heights. It's at the same address where the beloved Galicia stood for more than 25 years, the Spanish restaurant that was forced to close in 2018 after getting hit by 400% rent hike. Havana Heights has a completely different look and feel than its predecessor, and it's much larger as well, having also taken over the Meat Warehouse spot on the corner.
This is a family-run outfit, though Gabriel Estevez, who grew up a few blocks away, runs the day-to-day action at Havana Heights. The Estevez clan have been in the neighborhood for more than 40 years, operating small groceries and carnicerias at various locations over the decades (including Meat Warehouse), and three generations are actively involved at the new venture. Although it's too soon for it to really have "regulars," a lot of people working and eating here seem know each other, adding to an overall atmosphere of warmth and conviviality.
There's room here for about 150 people, mostly at utilitarian tables in the big dining area, at a long, curving banquette by the front windows, and at the bar, above which a few muted TVs play sports. There's lots of brick and a few gothic-looking chandeliers, but the bulk of the mood-creating decor falls on the restaurant's many colorful murals, stylized scenes involving Cuban cliches like cigars and vintage cars. It definitely wants to be a local party spot.
The menu is vast, multi-cultural, and, no surprise given the family's background in butcher shops, heavy on the meat. The semi-fancy dishware and squiggles of sauce may suggest that the kitchen is going for something a bit "elevated" here, but at its heart this is all very basic Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, and Puerto Rican fare.
The platter of grilled Chuletas, though brightened by some bell peppers, was seasoned mostly with salt, and arrived slightly overcooked. As was the case with all the dishes I ordered, it was also notable for its enormous size, a half dozen thin-sliced pork chops that came with a huge mound of yellow rice. You can get better Chicharron elsewhere in these parts, but the Havana Heights version does the trick, especially if you share a plate as an appetizer, and grab the fattiest pieces for yourself.
The Ropa Vieja is a decent enough take on the popular Cuban dish, with shredded flank steak and a rich, slightly sweet tomato sauce that's best when paired with rice and black beans to cut the intensity. The kitchen sent me out a complimentary order of Guacamole Havana, which arrived in festive fashion, like a plantain chip explosion. This was more than I could possibly eat, but the avocado dip had some zip to it.
The final course to my feast was a Cubano, which I thought I should try because it seems like something they would really nail. They didn't—I blame the overabundance of dry roast pork—which bodes ill for the rest of the extensive sandwich and burger options. There are well over a hundred other things to try here, including fajitas, grilled half chickens, several paellas, a whole mofongo section, some pastas, a bunch of salads, and asopaos.
Havana Heights is going to have to attract big crowds every night to fill all those seats, and while I can see it working as a neighborhood fall-back sort of situation—it is comfortable and fun in that way that can make grabbing a bite on a Tuesday feel like a night out—I wish they had pared down the menu by a lot and focused on really getting some of those core Cuban dishes right.
Havana Heights is located at 4083 Broadway, at the corner of West 172 Street, and is open Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to midnight, and on Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. (646-590-9734; havanaheightsnyc.com)