Little Havana in Federal Hill is probably best known for its minty mojitos, party vibe and waterfront view. But it's time to refocus on the Cuban-inspired cuisine.
Chef Willie Gomez, who worked at One World Cafe, is in the kitchen, putting his spin on the island food.
"We are blessed to have convinced him to work with us full-time," said Scott Donnelly, who owns Little Havana with Tim Whisted and Marc Gentile. "We sell more food now."
Diners will find choices like grilled flank steak with peppers and onions, chicken with plantains, and a pulled pork sandwich with avocado cream. Many of the dishes come with rice and refried beans. Other offerings include a burger, a turkey wrap and crab cakes.
On a recent visit, we enjoyed paella and a Cubano sandwich in the dimly lit, cavernous space that can't escape its bar nature with noisy crowds, rock music, a pool table and a foosball table. The outdoor patio looked inviting until it started to rain.
But the restaurant, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has created a niche on once-quiet Key Highway, where founding partner Whisted has built his vision in a former feed-supply warehouse.
"We're evolving with the neighborhood," said Donnelly. "The neighborhood has grown up around us."
SCENE & DECOR You enter the building from Webster Street, a side street off Key Highway, where you can also park. The hostess stand doubles as a counter, where Little Havana T-shirts are sold. We were led to a wooden booth, without cushions, near the bar. It's not the most comfortable seating.
APPETIZERS: The pork bites ($11.99), which the menu describes as "famous," were satisfying starters. The tender, slightly crusty cubes were flash fried and served with a zesty Cuban hot sauce. There was plenty to share. The house-made black-bean soup (cup, $3.99; bowl, $4.99) was a nurturing vegetarian concoction decorated with a splash of jalapeno sour cream, cilantro and red onions.
ENTREES: I lived in Florida for a few years and had my share of real-deal Cubano sandwiches. Little Havana's version ($9.99) gets my enthusiastic approval. I can see why it's one of the restaurant's most popular items. The Cuban bread (a must), spread with yellow mustard, was gently pressed to embrace slow-roasted pulled pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. The sides of rice and black beans were a bonus, but the bland plantain chips didn't add much. The paella ($19.99) sparkled with plentiful shrimp, mussels, chicken and chorizo in a captivating saffron-tomato broth. The mix was served over yellow rice laced with soft squash and zucchini.
DRINKS: The mojito ($10) packs a punch with lots of fresh mint and light rum. The margarita ($10) was a potent drink with tequila and triple sec. We liked the salted rim, but you can forgo that if you want. Other cocktails include a canchanchara, a classic Cuban rum cocktail, and a Maryland mule. Wines and beers like Heavy Seas Loose Cannon and Union Craft Brewing Duckpin Pale Ale are also on the menu.
SERVICE: Our waitress was mostly indifferent to us. We had to flag down a runner to get fresh flatware for our desserts, and she acted affronted when we pointed out that she had undercharged us on our bill, and we wanted to pay the full amount.
DESSERT: The online menu lists caramel flan as a dessert, but the in-house list doesn't include the baked custard. We opted for the churros ($5.99) and were happy with the three deep-fried rods, which tasted like doughnuts. A dunk into chocolate sauce and whipped cream increased our sense of well-being.
Backstory: After spending time in the Florida Keys, Tim Whisted opened Little Havana in Federal Hill in 1997 with his brother, Chris. Scott Donnelly, who started as a bartender at the restaurant, later returned as a business partner. Marc Gentile is another partner.
Signature dish: Cubano sandwich
Where: 1325 Key Highway, Federal Hill
Contact: 410-837-9903, littlehavanas.com
Open: Kitchen: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday (brunch until 3 p.m.). A late-night menu is available until 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Credit cards: All major
Handicap accessible: Yes
Bottom line: You have to appreciate a restaurant that's been around for almost two decades, especially one offering Cuban-influenced dishes.