Its facade glows neon bright, and strains of Latin music waft out to the mall parking lot. Inside, the melodies collide with a high-decibel cacophony of chatter and clatter.
Say hola to Havana Central, a big, brassy blend of faux palms, vintage photos and infectious beats. It's one restaurant chain's take on Cuba before the revolution, a time when, according to its website, "life on the island paradise was a continuous party."
Here, the party heats up Thursday to Saturday nights, when live Latin music may set your hips to twitching on the small dance floor near the band. Your perky server -- many attired to look as though they just stepped off an old Hollywood back lot -- will urge you to try a mojito. Say "si" to the passion-fruit version, a killer combo of rum, fruit and fresh mint. Sangrias are potent, if not quite as alluring. And the freshly muddled lemonade is a nonalcoholic treat.
To go with the potables: empanadas, mini fried pies. Not bad, the chicken sofrito and pork "Cubano" fillings. Better yet, a three-cheese combo. A refreshing shrimp seviche with citrus, avocado and red onions is served with style, in a martini glass. Both chicken and the pork corn tamales are simple and satisfying. But corn on the cob dusted with cheese and Cuban spices is downright mushy. And Cuban chicken soup -- more of a stew -- is so timidly spiced, it borders on bland.
In lively contrast is shrimp mofongo, mashed plantains and garlic plated with plenty of nicely cooked shellfish in a hyper-garlicky red sauce. A vegetarian version of paella -- essentially a mix of vegetables and yellow rice -- is savory and very good. And the classic ropa vieja -- shredded skirt steak with peppers and onions -- amounts to pure comfort. Winning, as well, is roasted chicken with a fiery-sweet mango-habanero glaze. But pernil asado -- slow roasted pork -- comes out a tad dry. Biggest letdown: at lunch, a Cuban sandwich that's supposed to be grill-pressed but, instead, is served on what seems to be cold Italian bread, plated with depressingly limp, lukewarm, pre-frozen sweet potato fries.
A tiered tray of desserts -- an airy, light tres leches cake, a rich, custardy flan and warm churros, fried doughnut sticks with dipping sauces of dulce de leche and chocolate -- can cap off your evening on a high note. But, in the end, it's probably the music that will draw you back.