At Doña Habana, Boston’s newest Cuban restaurant, there’s no mistaking when a birthday celebration is underway. The headlights of a 1950s-era Chevy (its front end embedded in a whimsical wall mural) flash on and off as a parade of servers, clapping in time with a peppy salsa tune, present a guest with a sparkler-topped cake.
Owner Hector Piña is delighted that the two-month-old spot is drawing crowds. “We haven’t had time to do a grand opening,” he says with a chuckle. He and his wife, Nivia, both seasoned restaurateurs, launched Dominican eatery Merengue more than 20 years ago in Roxbury, followed in 2012 by Puerto Rican-themed Vejigantes in the South End. This fall, they opened their latest venture on the ground floor of a Hampton Inn, just a stone’s throw from the Boston Medical Center.
The eatery’s stylish ambiance takes iconic imagery and polishes it to a high gleam. Classic cars, hand-rolled cigars, and street scenes of Old Havana feature in the art. Executive chef Roberto Niubo (former chef-owner of Malden’s Oyá Cuban Cafe) does something similar with the food, taking traditional ingredients and interpreting them deliciously for a broad audience.
Start with pan con lechon, a pulled pork sandwich ($9), offered at lunch. Shoulder meat, marinated with bitter orange and cumin, is roasted low and slow, shredded, then tucked with grilled sweet onions in a baguette-for-one. It’s presented on a mini carving board lined with wax paper bearing an imprint of Cuba’s national newspaper from the 1950s. A petite fryer basket holds thick, starchy batons of cassava (French fries and sweet potato fries are also on offer), terrific with the puffy bread and juicy filling.
Soups are excellent here. Caldo de pollo ($9) features bone-in chunks of chicken, plus carrot, potato, and strands of pasta in broth fragrant with oregano and bay leaf. Tamal en cazuela ($10), corn meal soup with pork, won’t win awards for looks. But the porridge-like dish, with nicely marbled meat, is comfort food at its rustic best. Two can split this ample dish.
A scan of the dinner menu (much expanded from lunch) might inspire mild sticker shock until you realize many items are designed for sharing. An appetizer platter called surtido de la Habana ($25) presents three kinds of empanadas, ham croquettes, crispy pork skin, plus plantain and root vegetable chips. Four diners at a nearby table dig into this platter. They are not going thirsty here. The drink list offers 53 riffs on the mojito, including a refreshing version made with watermelon ($12). The odd number, a server tells us, is a nod to Cuba’s international dialing code.
Ropa vieja ($16), which translates as “old clothes,” is everything you would want from this classic stew. Flank steak is braised with sweet peppers, onions, and tomatoes, then pulled into fine shreds. For the complementary side, we choose arroz congri, black beans mixed into rice, dotted with nubbins of salt pork.
Small plates called bocadillos can make a meal. A tamal Cubano de cerdo ($8), steamed masa stuffed with savory shredded pork, is very good. So are gambas al ajillo ($13), garlicky whole shrimp. Both are satisfying with a side like sweet plantains ($5) or black beans ($4).
Servers here are eager to please. When a tamal arrives cold, a manager whisks it away and delivers another that’s piping hot. A server happily helps us navigate menu descriptions.
On a Friday night, Celia Cruz croons on the sound system and the house is packed. The lounge is doing brisk business while another birthday celebrant gets his cake. Tell the Piñas that a grand opening party is already in full swing.
811 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, 617-708-0796.
All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Soup, salad $5-$20. Sandwiches, burgers, lunch entrees $8-$9. Small plates $7-$15. Shareable platters and main dishes $15-$31. Desserts $6-$8.
Hours Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-midnight. Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sun 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Liquor Full bar
What to order Pulled pork sandwich, chicken soup, cornmeal soup with pork, tamal Cubano, braised shredded beef with peppers, watermelon mojito.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.