During a recent tour of duty as a downtown office worker, I learned, among other things, how hard it is to put a positive spin on the workday lunch. I reject the canonical terms “lunch break” and “lunch hour” on similar grounds: If the so-called break ever really lasts an hour, it’s only because work is involved, rendering the hour something to be endured, not enjoyed. What’s more, the popular terminology isn’t any less oxymoronic when applied to the obligation-free lunch. Once you’ve visited every bagel shop, pan-whatever takeout emporium, deli, salad bar, and gyro joint within reasonable walking distance of your cubie enough times that you can perform credible impressions of their employees, eating takes on a tedium all its own.
Thus, it’s tough to overstate the working stiff’s attraction to noontime newness, and the midday lines at Havana Breeze testify to how desperate the search can become. “What’s fried yuca?” a woman asks a colleague as they wait to order. Her informed friend explains that yuca is also called cassava and that it’s like a potato, only sweeter and less soft.
“So, are they like french fries?”
“Yeah. But different.”
It’s dangerous to expect transcendence from a root vegetable; whether you fry it or flambé it, yuca is still going to taste faintly of the dirt from which it came. But ignorance can breed lust, so I decide not to tell the unsuspecting woman that she’s ordered wrong: The only cassava at Havana Breeze worthy of divine thanks comes baked and doused in a mighty mojo, a clear garlic-and-oil concoction that earns bluesman credentials with every soul-stirring bite. Even when Breeze’s fried yuca hasn’t gone dull under the heat lamp, the taste of the plain vegetable is fleeting. But eating yuca with mojo is like being blessed: It stays with you.
The name Havana Breeze seems to promise razzmatazz. I blame Cigar Aficionado: If Cuban stogies bring out the suppressed glamour queens in people who smoke them, it seems reasonable to expect that anything associated with Cuba would come wrapped in acres of red velvet and a mambo soundtrack. But Havana Breeze is more concerned with the accuracy of its cuisine than with panache. Dress it however you like, fried pork is still street food, and a bed of bright yellow rice isn’t going to make it any more comely.
Not that Breeze is an eyesore. The dining area is adorned with the requisite Latin-suggestive design doodadspiñatas, painted toucans and lizards; the jolly color scheme should remind even the most adventurously suited office types that they’re wearing gray. But visuals can’t hide the fact that Breeze is an affordable fast-food jointservice at this restaurant doesn’t really exist beyond the counter. The menu tells all you need to know about the Cuba the restaurant wants to convey, so screw your diet and grab some napkins; aside from the avocado-heavy salads, the Caribbean burritos, which are nicely beany but demand a knife and fork, are the daintiest meals available.
If Cuban cuisine were to gain the same sort of omnipresence as, say, Middle Eastern, which rode the coattails of hummus and the gyro into every suburban supermarket in America, the Cuban sandwich will be its vehicle. Breeze is an offshoot of Arlington’s Caribbean Grill, which has long claimed to serve the best Cuban sandwich around. The sandwich is pig-heavy and just a little absurda thick slice of ham layered with another hunk of seasoned pork and cradled in a toasted baguette with cheese and a handful of dill pickle coinsand Breeze gets it right. It’s street-vendor fare in Cuba, and Breeze doesn’t try to make it any different. Before being served, the pre-made sandwich is stuck into an iron press to reclaim the crunch and melt the cheese. With ingredients this rich, proportions are key, and Breeze has figured out how to make what’s essentially a delivery system for salt and fat go down like a well-balanced meal.
Not everything on the menu smacks of authenticity, leading me to suspect that the menu has been toned down for K Street. Don’t come to Breeze looking for Cuban classics such as stewed oxtails or pigs’ feet in brown sauce. The jerk chicken is moist and glossy with a fine dark goo, but if you rate jerk in terms of its kick, the recipe here is tameno hotter than the picante de pollo, a chicken stew that begs for salsa verde, or at least some salt. Two Cuban-style stews, one with shredded beef (ropa vieja), the other with beef chunks (esofado de carne), are much better bets, mostly because they pair so well with the sides. The beef gravy alone could turn a plate of sticky bean-studded rice into a meal.
Given its location next door to DC Coast, which is a fabfest on busy nights and just plain nice to look at on slow ones, it’s understandable for Breeze to try to bask in the aura of its address; the restaurant has been trying to sell itself as a happy hour destination since it opened. But its affordable lunch-spot appeal doesn’t play well in the dark. Converting a fast-food joint into a tapas/cigar lounge requires more than printing up a stack of fliers and selling beers for a buck and half, and, judging from the nights that I’ve stopped in for a drink and a snack, it seems that even the Breeze staff is resigned to cocktail-hour obsolescence. On my last visit, the bartender is too busy watching a Spanish-dubbed cut of Desperado to find me a menu. So I order a beer and ask him to bring me a baked plantain, which I eat alone.
Havana Breeze, 1401 K St. NW, (202) 789-1470.
Veneziano was once one of Adams Morgan’s few hidden treasures, home of one of the city’s largest grappa collections and arguably its best lasagna. The man on the phone at 18th Street Cafe, Veneziano’s successor, insists that little has changed since the late-summer name switch, “except for the menu.” He’s not lying: What was once a fairly innovative and ever-changing document now reads as if it’s tailored for tourists. Which isn’t all bad. A splash of herby olive oil, for instance, replaces the familiar dipping sauce in a plate of calamari. But the lasagna, once served with a drizzle of meat gravy, isn’t much different from what you’d find in the freezer case, and the osso buco tastes only of salt. I doubt that the president, who once caused a traffic jam during a Veneziano visit, will be dropping by any time soon.
18th Street Cafe, 2305 18th St. NW, (202) 483-9300. Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.