In order for you to accurately gauge the quality of a Cuban restaurant, you have to order the gold standard of measurement: Cuban sandwich with a coffee. If the sandwich’s pork is dripping with flavor and the coffee keeps you up for the rest of the week, you struck Cuban gold.
At the intersection of Broadway and Charnelton lies Eugene’s Cuban goldmine: Havana Cafe. The minute you walk in, your mouth will start to water and you will smell smells you didn’t even know existed, but are glad that they do. The smell of the pork and coffee, the sound of the music, and the colorful chairs and mural on the wall invite you to walk in and eat to your heart’s content.
Owner Andy Llarena opened up Havana Cafe on March 11 of this year. Llarena says he had always wanted to open a restaurant and he saw a local demand for Cuban food. “When I moved to Eugene, the first thing I noticed coming from Los Angeles was there’s no Cuban restaurant. I thought, ‘OK, well, fortunately I know how to cook myself,’” Llarena says.
The food at Havana Cafe lives up to Llarena’s and his staff’s cooking skills. Standouts on the menu include Andy’s original Cuban, the ropa vieja (old clothes, a Cuban staple), picadillo (ground beef with beans and white rice) and the croqueta sandwich.
Llarena started learning how to cook from his mother when he was 15. “Since I was very, very young, my mom had me in the kitchen. I kind of figured she wanted a girl but she got stuck with a boy so decided to show him how to cook,” Llarena said.
One key element Cuban cuisine is known for is its coffee — the cafe has buchito (a 3/4 oz shot) cortadito (coffee with milk), café con leche (coffee with more milk) and the colada (a fuller serving of coffee). Cuban coffee is a race car with nitrous that can only be described as “shocking,” Llarena says. And I am very much inclined to agree.
“I tell this story to everybody because it’s almost perfect,” Llarena says. Back when the restaurant was getting the final touches before it opened, he hired a painter to do a mural of a decorative map of Cuba. The painter was working late, putting on the last urethane coat on the wall. “He says it’s going to be a late night.” So, Llerena asks the painter, “OK, how late?” The reply: It could be midnight or morning.
No problem, Llarena tells him, and the painter asks, “Can I get a little coffee?”
Llarena says “I’m like, ‘Well, sure. Are you sure?’ He says ‘Yes, I’m sure.’ So I poured him a colada, which is a 4-ounce cup, and he drank it. We got out of here pushing around 2 am and he went home,” Llarena says.
The next day, as Llarena tells it, “It’s opening day, the house is packed. We’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” and the painter walks in at about 12:30 pm, looking “like death” and saying,“Man, 4:30, I am still rolling around. I could not get to sleep.”
Llarena’s strong connection to family and culture is something you can appreciate when you eat at Havana Cafe. He commonly checks in on his customers, ensuring that they are enjoying their food.
Llarena was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1982 to 1988, and his son served in Iraq and received two Purple Hearts for his service. “We love our roots, but we also love the United States,” Llarena says.
In Llarena’s kitchen there is a sign that says “En este cocina, bailamos,” meaning “In this kitchen we dance.” Llarena says that he and his employees dance in the kitchen and bump into each other while they cook. “I am loving what I do here,” he says.
Being able to sell his own product and share the food he grew up with means the world to Llarena, and it makes his day from the minute he opens to the time he closes.
Do yourself a favor and head to Havana Cafe, get yourself ropa vieja con un cortadito and soak in the flavors and the colorful, warm atmosphere. Just tell them that the Eugene Weekly sent you.