Review: The “New” Original Havana’s Sandwich Shop PART 1

       Havana

             In 2008, the Atlanta community mourned the loss of a local favorite for no-frills Cuban cuisine, The Original Havana Sandwich Shop, when it tragically burned to the ground. The little hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop had been cranking out some of the best Cuban sandwiches that one could find anywhere in town, and built an extremely loyal following. It truly was a dark day when we all heard that Havana was closing their doors. Now, almost one year later, Havana Cuban Cuisine has arisen from the ashes and is better than ever.

               For those that have not heard, there is still some ongoing controversy regarding the re-opening of this local favorite. Basically, where Atlanta once had only one Havana to adore, there will now be two. They both will be using the Havana name and will operate within only a few miles of each other.

               In one corner are Debbie Benedit and her son Eddie Benedit Jr., in the other is William Benedit (who I believe is Eddie Jr.’s brother, but that is based off of hearsay). It is Debbie and Eddie’s location that I recently visited, and I believe William’s incarnation is slated to open this coming January.

               Because I’m not a member of the family, and don’t know all of the hairy details, I will stick with a brief overview. There are two sides to every story, and many of these details come from Debbie and Eddie’s website, so take that for what you will.

              The Original Havana’s, located at the intersection of N. Druid Hills and Buford Hwy, was run by the Benedit family. Debbie Benedit and her now-late husband Eddie Benedit Sr. opened up shop on Feb. 9th, 1976. Upon Eddie Sr.’s passing, Debbie left the restaurant in her son’s hands, who ran the restaurant until the fire forced them to shut down. In the past year, an apparent schism occurred between the two parties and both feel that they are operating the “real” reincarnation of Havana’s. Since then, many have been, and remain to this day, confused as to who is actually re-opening the true Havana’s. My understanding is that if you were to ask the folks running Debbie/Eddie’s new shop, they will be more than happy to explain the realness of their establishment. I didn’t feel like dealing with that, so I kept my mouth shut.

               But you know what? Life is always better when you are positive. So, rather than get bogged down in all of the drama or pick sides, I’m just going to focus on the fact that now we get to have TWO Havana’s! And in many ways, that kicks ass. Or at least, hopefully it will.

                Enough negativity; let’s talk food.

                I had been a fan of the original Havana’s for years before the fire, so I was elated to hear that they would not be gone forever. When I heard that (one of them) had re-opened, I reluctantly gave them a few weeks to work out whatever opening-month kinks they may have had. Finally, my patience collapsed this week and I excitedly made haste to the new location.

               The space, located in the newly constructed Crossroads Shopping Center at the intersection of Buford Hwy and Clairmont rd., is decidedly nicer (see-cleaner) than the old hole-in-the-wall I had come to know and love. The feel of the place is different, now that it is in a regular ole’ shopping center, but not in a bad way. In fact, I think I like this one better, even if it lost some of its originality/eccentricity in the move. Though some paintings and décor survived the fire, it definitely feels like and updated/sterilized version of its former self.

               The menu is unchanged, which I was relieved to see. I’ll be interested to see if William’s version does the same thing. If not, that may be the deciding factor in the “realness” debate.

              There is something that you need to know about me before I get into the specifics of what we ordered, in the interest of full disclosure: I have a serious soft-spot in my heart for a good Cuban sandwich.

              I couldn’t tell you about the first meatball sub that I ever ate, nor could I detail my very first bite of a hotdog, turkey sandwich, or pizza. But I remember, clear as day, the first mouthful of Cuban sandwich that I ever had.

             I was 12 years old and standing in front of the deli counter at the Sandy Springs location of Happy Herman’s deli (now home to Slope’s BBQ). I had never heard of a Cuban sandwich at that age. Being an adventurous eater, even as a whippersnapper, I decided to try it out. I was floored. I loved it. Was it the best Cuban I have ever had since then? Maybe, or maybe not. But it was damn good at the time, and first impressions go a long way.

             Since that fateful day my love for Cuban sandwiches has never left me. In fact, while in college I boycotted a entire Publix near campus simply because their deli refused to make me a Cuban just because they “didn’t have a sandwich press”. I mean, come on guys….strap a 5 lbs weight to a board, sit that bastard on top of the bread, and VOILA! Sandwich Press! But I digress….

             Point being: I love Cuban sandwiches. So, you can imagine the joy that I felt when I dug into this bad boy.

Picture 154

I love you, Cuban Sandwich

            This Cuban was better than I remember Havana’s ever being. Perhaps absence made my heart grow fonder, but I think not. The bread was perfectly crunchy and slathered with just enough butter to really bring out the rest of the flavors of the sandwich. The pickles were crisp, the pork was succulent, the melted cheese dripped from my lips, and the spicy mustard gave it the perfect amount of bite. If this is your first time eating at Havana’s, this is a MUST TRY. This is the best Cuban sandwich I have had in Atlanta, with the exception of Happy Herman’s.

               My dinner date chose the Chicken Empanada’s, served with bean soup and rice.

Picture 145

Chicken Empanada

 

               These were also great. The chicken filling was very much akin to a shredded chicken salad (tasty) and the fried dough was hot, crispy, and flavorful. The yellow rice was well prepared and filling. Just a good, classic, cuban-style yellow rice side. I didn’t try the bean soup, so I can’t comment there. 

              For our sides, we had the Yuca Con Mojo and the Maduros (fried plantains).

 

Yuca Con Mojo

Yuca Con Mojo

              The Yuca Con Mojo was good, but you really need to be in the mood for Yuca (or just feeling particularly “starchy”). The roasted pieces of Yuca are topped with their version of a mojo sauce, which I noticed was particularly lacking in citrus/acidity. I know that citrus in mojo is optional, but I think it always adds some valuable “bite” that was a little lacking here. What was noticeably present was a lot of roasted garlic and sautéed onion rings. And butter. Now, it might have been olive oil, as is traditionally called for in a mojo, but this sure as hell tasted like butter. In fact, there was so much of the butter (or oil) on these that there was a pool of it in the bottom of the bowl.

Mmmmmm butter

Mmmmmm butter

               This isn’t a complaint, mind you; just an observation. While I did enjoy the Yuca, I don’t think it went well as a side for a Cuban sandwich. That is really my fault, not Havana’s. Had I gotten one of their plates instead, I think that the Yuca would have complemented the rest of my meal more appropriately. The flavor was simple, but effective: roasted garlic, onions, and butter. Can’t go wrong there.

Maduros

Maduros

             The maduros were good…if you like fried plantains, then you will like these. There wasn’t anything revolutionary about them, but they were simple and well executed. Sometimes, if the plantain is not ripe enough, you wind up missing out on the sweetness that the cooking process coaxes out of the fruit. This was definitely not the case here. If you are in the plantain kind of mood, these are a solid choice.

              Regardless of which camp you decide to align yourself with, I think we can all share in jubilation that Havana’s Sandwich Shop, in one form or the other, is back on the Atlanta food scene. In the interest of fairness, I also plan to review William’s upcoming “Havana” and I am looking forward for the chance to compare the two. In the mean time though, I fully intend to add THIS Havana’s back into my regular rotation, and I can’t wait to go back.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted December 16, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Maduros, ripe plantains. Ever had tostones, made with green plantains?

    FnS.

    • Posted December 18, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      I have, and strongly prefer the Maduros. I like my plantains sweet…Tostones are too starchy for my taste.

  2. Willie Benedit
    Posted December 18, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    We look forward to serving you in January. We appreciate your unbiased review.

    A statement from William Benedit concerning the two H***** Restaurants…
    Dear fans of Cuban cuisine:
    My father, Guido “Papi” Benedit, opened the Havana Sandwich Shop on Buford Highway in February 1976. Papi, myself, and my older brother Eddie, all worked together to bring to Atlanta Cuban recipes from my mother and grandmother’s kitchen. In 1986 I left the sandwich shop to open an automotive shop next door. Over the years, like many immigrant families, various members of our family moved in and out of the restaurant. In 1996 Papi retired leaving Eddie and his wife, Debbie, to run the business. After Eddie’s passing in 2001, Debbie continued to run the sandwich shop with her son Eddie Jr.
    Folks grow and things change over time. I moved my automotive shop away from Buford Highway. We were all shocked and saddened when the old Havana Sandwich Shop burned in October, 2008. In January, 2009, my sister in law, Debbie Benedit told the Cherokee Tribune she was joining her son to run the Cuban sandwich shop in Canton Her words were “..we decided to stop feeding strangers in Atlanta and start feeding our neighbors”. I naturally thought they had intended to abandon Atlanta, Buford Highway, and all those strangers.
    When my wife was laid off in March, 2009, and came back to work at our automotive shop, I decided to return to the restaurant business, as Cuban sandwiches have become so popular now they are sold in Publix groceries. I knew we could recreate the home style Cuban cooking that was so loved. We incorporated under the name you’ve been seeing, and began to look for a suitable location on Buford Highway.
    June of 2009, my sister in law, Debbie, and nephew, Eddie Benedit Jr., leased space further north on Buford Highway intending to open “Havana 76 Café”. We wished them well. In October 2009, they put up the new signs saying “Havana Restaurant” right before they opened. As she is the most well known of the old Havana Sandwich Shop, and as my father’s old restaurant had the sign saying “Havana Restaurant”, I happily concede it to them and wish them well. We are not them and they are not us.
    So let this talk of the “real” Cuban sandwich shop end. I am my father’s son and refugeed here with the rest of my family. I have as much right as anyone to try to serve you the best Cuban food available. We will be opening in January, 2010, at the entrance of NE Plaza Shopping Center Let our food do our talking and may the best Cuban sandwich win. Stay tuned for the name change.
    Thank you for your support,
    Willie Benedit

  3. Posted December 18, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    William-
    Thank you for your input. I think it is always helpful to get both sides of the story. As I said, I am not really choosing sides on this issue, and I am more excited than anything to have 2 potentially great Cuban restaurants in town. I am looking forward to trying out your location once it is open. Best of luck!

    • William Benedit
      Posted March 7, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      Havana Grill is now open! Hope to serve you soon! William Benedit

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