Caribbean, Cuban, Latin American, Mexican, Tacos

Review: Havana

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By Michael White

I’ve had a tendency to defer too much to the superior wisdom of The New York Times when I write for Jewkarta, and I had no intention of doing so again today. But then, mere hours ago, as if it had prophesied what I was struggling to articulate in the sentences that follow here, the Gray Lady published an article that provides a perfect framing for why Kley and I are so fond of Havana right now.

In the Times piece, California restaurant critic Tejal Rao ponders the increasingly lopsided balance of power in the relationship between servers and customers. During a time when all of us should be hyper-aware of the stress and sadness roiling inside our fellow humans — including, if not especially, those struggling to maintain a livelihood preparing and bringing us meals — instead we learn that public-facing workers, from restaurant staff to supermarket cashiers to Amazon drivers, are being subjected to more disrespect and outright abuse than ever from the masses.

This, needless to say, is some bullshit. Not only does it fly in the face of basic social decency; it lays bare a grotesque lack of gratitude toward people whose job is to risk their own health for no reason other than to provide us comforts we want but don’t need, perhaps even to pierce our year-plus bubble of loneliness with a warm-seeming “Hello,” an attentive “What can I do for you?”

What does this have to do with Havana? Frankly, everything.  

Havana has been a fixture of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive for more than 20 years. If ever it was considered one of the city’s crucial restaurants, it was before I lived here. It isn’t among the best, nor the most creative. Its menu is more Cuban-inspired than Cuban in practice. (I doubt any bona fide Cubanos consider carnitas tacos or pulled-pork eggs Benedict to be signatures of their homeland’s cuisine.) But none of this matters in the least. Because what Havana seems to want to be more than anything is A Great Hang: an environment in which we have an opportunity to not feel the rough edges of everyday life for a short time; where the food and drink are reliably good (at times great); where, if not everybody knows your name, at least a few staff are likely to remember it if you’ve become a familiar enough sight. Havana is where, lately, Kley and I have most consistently been able to forget — despite our servers’ masks and the sanitizer dispenser at the door and the plexiglass partitions hanging behind our backs — that we currently live under profoundly fucked-up circumstances. This is no small feat.

“Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define,” writes Rao. “It doesn’t hinge on the quality of the glassware, or the folding of a napkin while you’re in the bathroom…. Hospitality is both invisible and formidable — it surrounds you.” The individual components of the hospitality we’ve routinely experienced at Havana are nothing remarkable. In an ideal world, they would be par for the course. But, of course, this isn’t an ideal world, and hospitality workers are performing their duties under such pressure nowadays that I don’t take it personally if they don’t seem receptive to my pathological politeness. I understand their inertia: I’ve had it up to here with people, too.

So, I don’t know to what I should attribute the happy hum of energy that the staff at Havana have consistently brought to our table — long before they discovered we were unimportant food bloggers with a three-figure following. They’ve brought the sort of genuine (or else very impressively faked) engagement and kindness that make people like us become regulars, even though Havana isn’t remotely close to either of our homes.

But I don’t mean to suggest Havana is worth your time and money simply because chances are the person taking your order will be nice. I’d cross the city again just for the Cheesy Poblano & Corn Dip ($15), a gorgeous sludge of niblets and molten herb-garlic Oaxaca cheese, crisped and blistered from the broiler. Grilled octopus ($19) is among the best I’ve had in a long time, imparting beautiful smoke and perfect texture, mingled with other good things including chorizo and charred shishito peppers in a smoked Romesco sauce. And we both quietly lost our collective shit over Mariquitas ($7): long, curling strips of fried plantain served with a chimichurri aioli that I implored the manager to bottle and sell. (He’s considering it.)

At brunch recently, Kley made best friends with the Governor Sour ($12), a pretty and bracingly — but not cloyingly — sweet cocktail of pisco, passionfruit, coconut, lime and egg white. I tend to skew bitter (ask anyone) and so was very taken with the Cuban old fashioned ($14), which builds upon an unlikely base of brown-butter Havana Club rum dosed with Angostura and cacao-coffee bitters. Our glows thus stoked, we sat further back in our patio chairs and watched the Drive’s bohemian and hipster-parent hordes parade past. Against all odds, life seemed sweet.

Speaking of patios… at the time of this writing, British Columbia’s indoor-dining ban continues, and so the covered patio is the only seating at Havana for the time being. This is no bad thing. Spring has sprung, and everyone seems all the more content (for reasons of both public health and general happiness) to be here next to the benign din of the sidewalk. As I write this, I wish I were there.

1212 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
604-253-9119 / Instagram: @havanavancouver
Delivery platform: DoorDash

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

Mexican, Mexican American, Tacos

Review: The Pawn Shop YVR

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By Michael White

Arguably no Vancouver street betrays the local economic and social impacts of the pandemic as nakedly as the Granville Strip. The five blocks between Robson and Drake streets — especially south of Nelson — have been cosmically ugly for as long as most of us can remember. Not as existentially depressing as, say, Main and Hastings, but a top-rank urban eyesore nevertheless — dirty and charmless and seemingly disgusted with itself. To my knowledge, the City has never initiated any meaningful attempts to beautify it, presumably because there is no point: every weekend, hundreds of suburban dipshits swarm the Strip, to drink and to fight and to projectible vomit across its sidewalks and onto its storefronts. Or at least they did, until COVID-19 put the brakes to that, as it did to so much other human activity. (Of course, it didn’t stop all of them. Some dipshits can never be stopped their dipshitting.) And so, what was once merely unattractive is now both unattractive and barren — a debauched party from which everyone went home after trashing the house.

This is the ailing environment in which The Pawn Shop exists and, similar to countless other restaurants here and worldwide, is currently struggling to hold on. The Pawn Shop (or, to use its full unwieldy name, The Pawn Shop YVR) is doubly cursed in that it was purpose-built for the Strip and those who frequent it: young club-hoppers and nearby office workers seeking uncomplicated tacos, burritos, and tequila-based cocktails with which to either stoke the celebratory fires of a wild night out or to cushion the blow of workday drudgery. The room — heavily graffitied walls, high-top tables, dim lighting, not a single soft surface to absorb the din — is of a piece with the food. It isn’t most people’s idea of a destination eatery, but if you happen to be in the neighbourhood for the reasons most people come to this neighbourhood, in all probability it’s exactly what you want.

The Pawn Shop bills itself as “East L.A. inspired,” which is a bold claim — some of the most authentic and savagely delicious Mexican food to be found outside of Mexico is in Los Angeles communities such as El Sereno and nearby Boyle Heights. This isn’t that. (The Mexican, one block north, is closer to the mark.) What The Pawn Shop is, however, is a very good — occasionally excellent —purveyor of the sort of Mexican-American go-tos that make white people (this one included) very happy when alcohol is flowing and the day’s miseries are soon to be forgotten. The dining room, so crucial to the full Pawn Shop experience, is quieter nowadays, of course, due to reduced capacity and social-distancing measures — a stark contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder atmosphere of the Before Times. But our takeout experience (we tried both pick-up and delivery) revealed that their fare travels well, and is a great complement to yet another evening on the sofa watching whatever Netflix drivel best soothes your frazzled pandemic nerves.

The Pawn Shop offers 10 different tacos, five of which are “O.G.” (meaning traditional; three for $10.95) and the rest “bougee” (presumably meaning they have ideas above their station; three for $13.95). Carnita, Al Pastor and Chicken Tinga deliver what you expect and likely want: tender marinated meats; acidic counterpoints (cilantro, grilled pineapple, raw onion); small, pliable flour tortillas. We wish the salsa had delivered more heat (or that we’d been offered jalapenos to compensate), but the flavours were harmonious and the textural contrasts on point. Best of the lot was Crispy Avocado (one of two vegetarian tacos), in which the millennially beloved fruit is panko-crusted and deep-fried, its mild unctuousness melding beautifully with shredded white cabbage, pico de gallo, and salsa verde.

We were especially enthusiastic about our quesadilla ($15.95), an oversized land mine of starch and fat stuffed with beef brisket (one of six options) and, crucially, an immobilizing bog of melted cheese. Were we meant to receive sour cream alongside the (we repeat, too mild) salsa? We didn’t. But no matter, because we found enough additional ballast in the Big Bird Burrito ($15.95), the star ingredient of which is breaded buffalo chicken. This is roughly as near to bona fide Mexican cuisine as the Doritos Locos Taco — but fuck it. This, again, isn’t the point.

The Pawn Shop is probably best experienced as part of a large group, the better to explore the extensive selection of shareables from the appetizer list, which includes sundry other deep-fried things (cheese tots, jalapeno poppers, tempura wings, vegan cauliflower florets for that one virtuous person who tagged along; $9.95 and up) and, naturally, a nachos platter the size of a postmature baby ($14.95-$24.95). Half a dozen flavours of margarita, fishbowl drinks and “spiked slushes” do what they’re meant to do, as are an array of tall-boy cans from independent breweries. The Pawn Shop is doing its best to draw you in, including a generous Happy Hour featuring $4.95 drinks and $1.99 tacos (after a minimum initial order). If you have a trusted bubble to accompany you, this might be just the place to enjoyably kill a few hours before returning to the safety of your home. Or do what we did: Bring home a heaving bag of much too much, and assault your already abused digestive system with the leftovers at breakfast time. To quote a very wise song out of context: It’s not right, but it’s OK.

The Pawn Shop YVR
117 Granville St.
604-687-7474 / Instagram: thepawnshopyvr
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Uber Eats

(Photo: Kley Klemens)