A little bit of Havana in Houston.
By Joanna O’Leary
With relaxed travel restrictions and direct flights from Houston on multiple airlines, traveling to Havana has never been easier. But if you’re still waiting for that visa to arrive and craving Cuban food now, there’s no need to despair. Here’s a delicious guide to some of the establishments serving authentic Cuban fare in Houston.
As one of the few restaurants to endure in the ever-changing culinary landscape that is Rice Village, El Meson offers some excellent Cuban-inflected dishes (although it is primarily known for its Spanish cuisine). My favorite is the Nachos Cubanos’ blue corn chips individually layered with sweet plantains and black beans, then smothered in melted Chihuahua cheese and jalapeños. Every loaded wedge is a dense collaboration of sweet and spicy starches. While the nachos are technically an appetizer, there’s no law against doubling your order for an entrée portion.
Although “fast food” usually conjures up images of tasteless, chemical-laden garbage, the type vended at any of El Rey Taqueria’s four locations is quite the opposite. Their hot-and-ready Cuban specials are made from scratch ingredients, which becomes readily apparent one bite into their succulent ropa vieja, a Cuban culinary staple composed of shredded beef heavily seasoned with cumin and garlic, then stewed in a rich tomato broth and paired with white rice, plantains, and tortillas. The Havana Plate, strips of lean pork in a lemon sauce with grilled onions and peppers, contrasts tart, botanical flavors with savory porcine notes. It’s terrific as a light lunch. If you’re feeling slightly more ambitious, I suggest El Rey’s Cuban Burrito, which riffs on the traditional Tex-Mex version via the inclusion of sautéed plantains along with rice, beans, sour cream, and your choice of pork, beef, or chicken.
Being one of the oldest Cuban restaurants in Houston, Café Piquet has a solid menu of Havana highlights including some less-mainstream options like Higado à la Italiana, beef liver with peppers and onions, and Yucca con Mojo—tender cassava logs ensconced in a garlic sauce (a must-order for garlic-lovers). Their Filete Cardinal, a pangasius (similar to catfish) filet with and ham and cheese stuffing that is deep-fried and doused in sautéed onion and cream, is a singular show-stopper found nowhere else in town.
Or try chasing down The Cuban Spot food truck for their amazing Cuban sandwiches. In addition to featuring thick strata of pork, ham, cheese, and pickles, they also get credit for being made with perhaps the most supple pan Cubano in the city. A side of tostones is a must for this sammie, as well as The Cuban Spot’s second-most-popular offering: the Frita, a burger made from a combination of chorizo, pork, and beef topped with bacon, Swiss cheese, potato sticks, and a mayo-based special house sauce.
For the most extensive selection of authentic Cuban fare, head to Rincon Crillo Cuban Cuisine, whose no-frills strip-mall façade belies an interior dining room filled with die-hard regulars attaining gustatory nirvana. Such bliss in a modest setting is due to the restaurant’s well-executed Cuban classics and appetizers like Yucca Rellena, fried yucca stuffed with cheese, and ham croquettes. Standout entrées include the Fricassée de Pollo, large chunks of white-meat chicken simmered in a fragrant tomato broth, and the Picadillo à Caballo, ground meat seasoned with cumin, oregano, and bay, and crowned with two fried eggs. Rincon Crillo is also one of the few joints in Houston serving traditional Cuban desserts; try the Pudín Diplomatico, a moist, very sweet coconut bread pudding, or a crispy turnover filled with guava and tangy cream cheese. No room? Take a dozen to go for breakfast the next morning.