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Havana Grill makes this Mission Valley mall a Cuban dining destination

Seafood paella, pulled pork, fried beef, and pastries are barely half the story

Seafood paella, made by a Cuban restaurant at the mall
Seafood paella, made by a Cuban restaurant at the mall

There are quite a few reasons to visit the new location of Havana Grill, but two features in particular convinced my wife to join me for lunch.

Place

Havana Grill Mission Valley

1652 Camino Del Rio N, San Diego

Bear in mind, she’s tagged along on enough of my foodie misadventures to know that not all restaurants I want to write about turn out to be winners, and she’s content to let me uncover the losers on my own. It did help that I could already recommend Havana Grill based on previous visits to its first location, in Clairemont. And it didn’t hurt that the Cuban counter restaurant pledges a focus on “organic,” “naturally raised,” and “non-GMO” ingredients.

But what tipped the scales was, first, being able to show her a photo of the restaurant’s seafood paella ($21), a take on the Spanish rice dish loaded with clams, mussels, calamari, and cod. Second, I could sweetly point out: “This new location is at the mall… we can go shopping together afterward.”

A new, second location for Clairemont favorite Havana Grill

That said, I’m delighted to report that it’s possible to visit the restaurant without technically setting foot inside Westfield Mission Valley mall. Havana Grill faces out to the parking lot from the shopping center’s northeast entrance, the one next to Nordstrom Rack. It even opens a window counter where you may quickly order a Cuban coffee to go.

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But it’s worth going inside, if only to see what you get when a locally owned business takes up occupancy in a mall, rather than a chain restaurant. Tasteful tile and brick surround an island bar and airy dining space, where vintage streetlamps, window shutters, and trees create the illusion of courtyard dining. The servers add Cuban flair by wearing straw fedoras.

A local restaurant set up shop at the mall, and it looks like this

According to the printed menus, the founders Havana Grill employ the recipes of a mid-century restaurant they operated in Havana. In addition to that wife-approved paella, the menu offers plates of wine-braised oxtail, ropa vieja stewed beef, and roasted chicken.

Other Cuban mainstays you find on plate, also turn up on sandwiches. In the case of the roasted lechon pork, you’ll find it on several variations of the classic Cubano sandwich, whether you want to stick to its best-known construction with smoked ham, mustard, and pickles; opt for a Hot Cuban (with jalapeños); or take a chance on the Crazy Cuban, which owes its added crunch to pork cracklings.

The "Cuban American" sandwich, made with fried flank steak, a.k.a. vaca frita

Having already highlighted this pulled pork at Havana Grill’s original location, I want to focus this visit on another winsome Cuban meat preparation: vaca frita ($19), literally “fried cow.” What you’re getting here is a best of both world’s flank steak: braised tender enough to shred, then pan-fried to deliver charred, crispy edges with each bite. It may help Mexican Food enthusiasts to think of vaca frita as Cuba’s beefy answer to crispy carnitas.

Here at Havana Grill, the same terrific beef goes on a sandwich, dubbed “the Cuban American.” Ordered over this year’s long, 4th of July weekend, mine even came garnished with a tiny American flag. But that’s not why I ordered vaca frita on a sandwich. And not because it’s $4 cheaper ($15). I went with sandwich over plate because Havana Grill doubles as a bakery, and its baked-on-premise breads construct outstanding sandwiches.

A surprising benefit? Sandwiches come with plantain chips, which eat like potato chips, but with more flavor behind each salty crunch.

Mango key lime and salted caramel chocolate tarts

Whether you aim for sandwich or plate, the last important thing to remember is the pastries are also baked in-house. You won’t go wrong nabbing any of the empanadas, stuffed with the likes of pork, chicken, and beef ($4.25 each). And I can’t even do justice to the colorful array of desserts displayed at the service counter (prices vary). Let’s call it enough to say that a pair of eye-catching tarts — key lime mango ($8.75) and salted caramel chocolate ($8) — tasted even better than they looked.

My wife will never agree with all my decisions, but I’m told we can have a lunch date at Havana Grill anytime.

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Seafood paella, made by a Cuban restaurant at the mall
Seafood paella, made by a Cuban restaurant at the mall

There are quite a few reasons to visit the new location of Havana Grill, but two features in particular convinced my wife to join me for lunch.

Place

Havana Grill Mission Valley

1652 Camino Del Rio N, San Diego

Bear in mind, she’s tagged along on enough of my foodie misadventures to know that not all restaurants I want to write about turn out to be winners, and she’s content to let me uncover the losers on my own. It did help that I could already recommend Havana Grill based on previous visits to its first location, in Clairemont. And it didn’t hurt that the Cuban counter restaurant pledges a focus on “organic,” “naturally raised,” and “non-GMO” ingredients.

But what tipped the scales was, first, being able to show her a photo of the restaurant’s seafood paella ($21), a take on the Spanish rice dish loaded with clams, mussels, calamari, and cod. Second, I could sweetly point out: “This new location is at the mall… we can go shopping together afterward.”

A new, second location for Clairemont favorite Havana Grill

That said, I’m delighted to report that it’s possible to visit the restaurant without technically setting foot inside Westfield Mission Valley mall. Havana Grill faces out to the parking lot from the shopping center’s northeast entrance, the one next to Nordstrom Rack. It even opens a window counter where you may quickly order a Cuban coffee to go.

Sponsored
Sponsored

But it’s worth going inside, if only to see what you get when a locally owned business takes up occupancy in a mall, rather than a chain restaurant. Tasteful tile and brick surround an island bar and airy dining space, where vintage streetlamps, window shutters, and trees create the illusion of courtyard dining. The servers add Cuban flair by wearing straw fedoras.

A local restaurant set up shop at the mall, and it looks like this

According to the printed menus, the founders Havana Grill employ the recipes of a mid-century restaurant they operated in Havana. In addition to that wife-approved paella, the menu offers plates of wine-braised oxtail, ropa vieja stewed beef, and roasted chicken.

Other Cuban mainstays you find on plate, also turn up on sandwiches. In the case of the roasted lechon pork, you’ll find it on several variations of the classic Cubano sandwich, whether you want to stick to its best-known construction with smoked ham, mustard, and pickles; opt for a Hot Cuban (with jalapeños); or take a chance on the Crazy Cuban, which owes its added crunch to pork cracklings.

The "Cuban American" sandwich, made with fried flank steak, a.k.a. vaca frita

Having already highlighted this pulled pork at Havana Grill’s original location, I want to focus this visit on another winsome Cuban meat preparation: vaca frita ($19), literally “fried cow.” What you’re getting here is a best of both world’s flank steak: braised tender enough to shred, then pan-fried to deliver charred, crispy edges with each bite. It may help Mexican Food enthusiasts to think of vaca frita as Cuba’s beefy answer to crispy carnitas.

Here at Havana Grill, the same terrific beef goes on a sandwich, dubbed “the Cuban American.” Ordered over this year’s long, 4th of July weekend, mine even came garnished with a tiny American flag. But that’s not why I ordered vaca frita on a sandwich. And not because it’s $4 cheaper ($15). I went with sandwich over plate because Havana Grill doubles as a bakery, and its baked-on-premise breads construct outstanding sandwiches.

A surprising benefit? Sandwiches come with plantain chips, which eat like potato chips, but with more flavor behind each salty crunch.

Mango key lime and salted caramel chocolate tarts

Whether you aim for sandwich or plate, the last important thing to remember is the pastries are also baked in-house. You won’t go wrong nabbing any of the empanadas, stuffed with the likes of pork, chicken, and beef ($4.25 each). And I can’t even do justice to the colorful array of desserts displayed at the service counter (prices vary). Let’s call it enough to say that a pair of eye-catching tarts — key lime mango ($8.75) and salted caramel chocolate ($8) — tasted even better than they looked.

My wife will never agree with all my decisions, but I’m told we can have a lunch date at Havana Grill anytime.

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