Cuban cigar boxes and faded photographs of rustic Caribbean settings hang on the walls of the dimly lit dining room at Havana South. Salsa music drifts from ceiling speakers as smiling waitresses transport pretty plates of food to diners. The vibe promises an authentic Cuban experience. And if it weren’t for the entrees, it would deliver on that promise because the best meal at Havana South can be found in its sides, starters and sandwiches.
The classic Cuban sandwich ($6.95) comes generously stuffed with slices of roast pork seasoned with mojo sauce (garlic, oil and lemon), thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Unfortunately, rigor mortis had set in, making the bread a tough chew. A better option is the medianoche ($6.95). A popular late night snack (the name means “midnight”), it’s made by taking all the ingredients of the Cuban and pressing it between sweeter, softer slices of bread. The crunchy, chewy texture of pickles and pork complements the way the salty ham plays off the sweet bread, rendering every bite better than the first.
As good as the medianoche is, the beef empanada ($4.95) is my favorite. Bulbous half-moon pastries stuffed with seasoned ground meat and olives are deep-fried to a golden brown. Peppery gravy oozes from the flaky shell when I tear away pieces and swab them through the accompanying cilantro mayonnaise that gives the whole thing a garlic kick.
Maduros — warm, caramelized chunks of fried ripe plantains — pop with the taste of the tropics. Flowery yellow rice, seasoned and stained with annatto seeds from the tropical achiote tree, resembles savory saffron rice dishes of Indian origin. Sides of red beans are infused with the hearty flavor of smoked pork.
But venturing over to the entree side of the menu presents a less satisfying experience.
The bistec palomilla ($12.95) — a thin slice of marinated steak, fried to medium-well and topped with mojo and sautéed onions — deserves marks for its appetizing appearance when it arrives glistening in its juices. But each bite reveals little flavor and a texture reminiscent of jerky. Ditto the tough and bland masitas de Puerco ($9.95), described on the menu as “tender lean chunks of pork.” The best of the bunch is the chicharrones de pollo ($9.95), a popular Latin dish comprised of chunks of seasoned fried chicken (usually bone-in) dredged in flour, then deep-fried to a crackly golden exterior. Havana South’s version is moist and evenly cooked, but it could use a little more flavor and crunch.
With a little more attention to entrees, particularly the tenderizing and seasoning of the meats, Havana South could round out an otherwise solid menu. Until then I probably won’t go back unless it’s late and I’m craving a medianoche.HAVANA SOUTH 4060 Buford Drive, Buford, 30518, 678-546-2252 Food: Authentic Cuban dining such as traditional meat, seafood, rice plates and sandwiches Service: Attentive but sometimes uninformed on menu items Best dishes: Chicharrones de pollo hueso (bone-in fried chicken chunks), medianoche sandwich, beef empanadas Vegetarian selections: Lots of fried vegetable appetizers, salads, bean soup, sides Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 12 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday Children: Yes Parking: In lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair Access: Yes, accessible all the way to the left of the storefront Smoking: No Noise Level: Low to moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes