Cuban dishes, says chef Pablo Portilla, are strikingly simple. It's mostly just the food families eat at home.
That might explain why Cuban restaurants, outside their native turf and nearby Miami, are hard to find. Portilla tries to remedy that with the new Havana Cafe, an unmissable rooftop experience in Northwest Portland. It's not Portilla's first attempt at offering his heritage cuisine in Portland: More than a decade ago, he operated a food cart, also called Havana Cafe, but closed up shop to work for the past nine years at the now-shuttered Mi Mero Mole.
His new digs are about as far from the confined quarters of a cart as you can get. Located in the former home of Pearl District sports bar On Deck, the restaurant is an expansive, 8,000-square-foot rooftop venue shared with gin bar the Botanist. Tables are spaced more than 6 feet apart and spread over two dining areas. The exposed roof can be hot when the sun is high, but once the orb drops behind the late summer skyline, it is hard to imagine a mellower vibe.
The main dining area is farthest west, just as patrons emerge from the short stairway that leads up from the street to the second floor. To the east of it is another massive dining space with a stage setup at one end. On Fridays and Saturdays only, Latin jazz and a variety of other musical stylings accompany the food and drink.
After settling in, diners' phones hover over a tabletop QR code that reveals cocktail and dinner menus. The food offerings are short, sweet and rustically delicious.
Start with a starch: either tostones ($6)—deep-fried, smooshed slices of green plantain—or yucca frita ($6), a sliced tuber that also gets a turn in the fryer. Next are traditional platters served with deceptively non-boring black beans and rice. Among a handful of choices, lechon con mojo ($13.75) may be your power move. It's a mound of ultra-tender, deeply flavored slow-roasted pork infused with garlic. Also compelling is the distinctively flavored picadillo ($12.75), made up of spiced ground beef cooked together with olives and raisins.
As an alternative to a full platter, try a lechon sandwich ($12.75) or the better known Cubano (ham, Swiss, pickles, and yellow mustard pressed together until gooey; $12.75). In the future, expect an expanded menu, including Portilla's family favorite, quimbobo, a Cuban African mashup of slow-roasted pork chunks and okra in a Cuban-seasoned tomato sauce, and plantain soup, shredded green plantain in vegetable stock seasoned with Cuban spices.
The anticipated additions are exciting, but don't wait to visit—though "packing them in" isn't quite the right description, Havana Cafe's formula of fine Cuban food, drinks and lively music on the weekends is already proving popular.
Number of tables: 50 four-seaters
Space between tables: 7 feet
Additional safety measures: Digital menus; markers on steps for social distancing; dedicated host on Fridays and Saturdays monitoring compliance.
Peak hours: 7-10 pm