From an open kitchen, he’s made good on his promise. My last dinner, beneath a turquoise ceiling and to the tune of salsa, saw nothing but home runs. Equal to the braised chicken, draped in chopped onion and tomato, is skewered grilled shrimp, glazed with guava sauce, tingling with chipotle, and festooned with grill-striped pineapple bites. Then there’s a smoky red pepper, stuffed with a cornucopia of black beans, corn, peas and briny green olives, everything arranged on a ruddy romesco sauce.
Little Havana’s bar does the food justice (the white rum-based El Presidente, redolent of orange, is liquid sunshine) and if the weather cooperates, the front patio gives you a front-row seat to life in Columbia Heights — or is it the Caribbean? Little Havana sprits us away from the workaday — at least for the moment. Solis was toying with changing over to a Mexican theme this month, and may do so later this year. Get the Cuban goods while you can.
2 1/2 stars
Little Havana: 3704 14th St. NW. 202-758-2127. littlehavana.com.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Dinner $12 to $28.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10 new restaurants of 2019:
This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide as No. 9 on a list of the year’s top 10 restaurants.
9. Little Havana
Nothing about this youthful Cuban-Caribbean storefront from Alfredo Solis, owner of the nearby Mezcalero, says “cookie cutter.” Patrons are immediately seduced by the whimsical murals painted by local graffiti artist Ernesto Zelaya. Drinkers’ whistles get wet after the first sip of a true-tasting daiquiri. Even the bread basket, served with a spread of salt cod and cream cheese, makes a statement. When the best black bean soup in memory crosses my lips, I swivel around in my chair to see who’s in the open kitchen: Joseph Osorio, whose Colombian parentage and Cuban godmother’s recipes inform the cooking here in Columbia Heights. Slow-roasted pork swells with flavor, thanks to an overnight soak in bitter orange juice, beer and peppers. A seafood stew tastes as if the lobster, mussels and shrimp each had their own conscientious cook. Who cares if every dish isn’t grounded in authenticity? Spring rolls stuffed with Cubano sandwich filling, a novelty the chef created for his kids, have adults smiling, too. And did I mention that the piña colada comes in a pineapple half?
The Top 10 restaurants of 2018:
The following preview was originally published Sept. 21, 2018.
Little Havana is big on good taste
Shortly after Alfredo Solis, owner of the popular Mexican restaurant Mezcalero in Columbia Heights, hired Joseph Osorio to work for him, Osorio says he let his friend know, “I’m not feeling this.”
Osorio, the former head chef at Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Alexandria, is big, the kitchen is small, and what the chef really wanted to cook was something closer to what he was raised on in Queens as the offspring of Colombian parents and the charge of a Cuban godmother.
Fortunately for Osorio — and ultimately the District — Solis had another restaurant in his pocket, just a few storefronts away. Little Havana opened in August with vivid murals by local artist Ernesto Zelaya and top-flight drinks from Heriberto Casasanero, formerly of Copycat Co. Soaking up walls painted to resemble a drive through Havana while drinking a piña colada from a pineapple half will lift anyone’s mood.
“We wanted to do it the right way,” says the owner of the new kid on the block, which also benefits from nice-to-see-you service and a welcome of toasted bread offered with a spread of cream cheese blended with bacalao.
Osorio has plenty of room to maneuver in the open kitchen, where he can see the reception his food gets. Eating his nuanced black bean soup made my eyes pop. Striped with sour cream and warm with cumin, the bowl is also thick with crisp bits of pork belly. The soup — now my benchmark for black bean — becomes even more of a meal with the addition of a ham-and-cheese croquette on the surface. Other worthy openers include boneless chicken thighs dunked in garlic aioli, thick fried plantains topped with juicy beef, and tender grilled octopus on a bed of potato-bean salad. All are better in the company of a cocktail. I can vouch for the smooth, not-too-sweet daiquiri natural, personally dropped off by its maker.
Ropa vieja is just what you want braised beef, shredded like “old rags,” to taste of: soft-cooked peppers and red wine along with meat that collapses at the touch of a fork. Fresh-tasting mussels, shrimp and lobster rise from their bowl in a stew whose slurp-worthy broth is fueled by tomatoes, onions and green olives. Beer, garlic and bitter orange make for a memorable lechon caribe: marinated pork flanked with rice that’s red with tomato and paprika, and wicked with bits of fried pork skin.
“We want to bring Cuban food to the next level,” says Solis, who has done just that.
With each visit, my list of pet dishes grows longer, and I notice some lovely design detail. Look up. The metal ceiling is awash in turquoise. Look opposite the kitchen, too, where a brick wall honors Osorio’s godmother, the source of some of the chef’s recipes, with a painted likeness. Andrea de Acosta is gone, but she’s still keeping an eye on what’s important.