It was a weekend for the non-horsey set to avoid heading north. So my young man and I followed Horace Greeley’s advice and went west.
A Cuban restaurant in Amsterdam? “I wanted to bring authentic Cuban food to this area,” explained Alex, chef/owner of Cuba Havana, who helped me understand his name by pointing to the large block letters “ALEX” tattooed on his right forearm. Open only four months, Alex already has plans for a similar restaurant in a nearby small city within a year.
The “Kool Dipper” caboose tacked onto the main name signifies the addition of an ice cream stand attached to the restaurant. Both parts are flanked in the front and right side by a large parking area.
Several picnic tables scattered in front on what appears to be a newly paved area accommodate ice cream and Cuban food diners alike.
Inside the Spartan dining room were six large booths each accommodating six people, and well as a counter with six stools. The counter also housed a small steam table for the stew-like dishes. Behind the counter was a pass-through, an efficient means of quickly moving the food from kitchen to counter to dining area.
Server Clara delivered two menus and took our beverage order (fresh lemonade for John, a bottle of Pina Buena soda made from pineapples from Puerto Rico for me).
The menu was divided into eight columns — four on each side — and included appetizers, sides, soup and salad, sandwiches, from the grill, gyros, fries, wraps, nachos, entrees, daily specials, pollo asado (roasted chicken), family dinner specials, desserts, ice cream and breakfast.
Choosing was difficult. We eventually settled on chicken breast stuffed with crabmeat ($16.99) for John and a Cubano sandwich ($7.99) for me. Fascinated by the Papa Rellena ($2.00), we ordered one to split as an appetizer. Fashioned like a three-layered globe, the outside was a crispy browned shell covering a layer of mashed potatoes, which in turn protected a core of ground beef. It was unusual and flavorful, but cool on the inside.
The taste of John’s crab-stuffed chicken breast was dominated by the crab meat, and was topped with salty creole sauce. A molded mound of Cuban rice was guarded on either side by fresh garlic-topped tostones (twice-fried plantain slices). John noted that the creole sauce kept the chicken from being dry.
I enjoy Cubanos. For me, part of the sandwich’s charm is the pickle’s sourness, which helps cut through the richness of the pulled pork, ham and cheese. The pickle also adds color to the sandwich.
Unfortunately, there was nary a pickle in the monster sandwich. I even dissected the half I had brought home to search for pickles, but there were none. The sandwich was good, but could have been great.
A bright light was the inclusion of a small container of mojo sauce, which tasted and looked a little like Russian dressing, and according to Clara also contained fresh garlic and adobo seasoning.
One last comment about the Cubano: Most of what I have read and sampled describes it as a pressed sandwich, complete with grill lines. The bread used at Cuba Havana was thicker, less compressed and more like a long, fat roll. Minor detail, perhaps — this style may be what Alex remembered from his own area in Cuba.
I noticed at the end of the menu three “homemade daily” desserts were listed. I perked up at the mention of flan ($2.99) along with rice pudding (also $2.99) and cheesecake ($3.50). But Alex said only Tres Leches Cake (literally, “three-milk cake,” a light, airy sponge cake soaked with a mixture of three milks: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream) was available that evening.
Since my taste buds were set on flan, we passed on dessert.
At a time when diners are becoming a little more daring and willing to move out of their culinary comfort zone, Cuba Havana offers food lovers an addition to the increasing number of Middle Eastern and Hispanic venues in our area. These new ethnic eateries offer authentic cuisine made from fresh ingredients at reasonable prices, served by caring and knowledgeable staff.
Cuba Havana/Kool Dipper
WHERE: 240 Forest Ave., Amsterdam, (518) 212-2976
WHEN: Every day 6 a.m.-10 p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
HOW MUCH: $31.48 for one shared appetizer, one entree, one sandwich and two soft drinks, but without tax and tip.
MORE INFO: Spanish (Cuban) and American food, hard and soft ice cream, accessible (everything is on one level), lot parking, outdoor seating, credit cards accepted, takeout and delivery, family friendly.