Located on the corner of Morelos and Bucareli just blocks from Reforma after it leaves the Parque Alameda and heads diagonally to Chapultapec Park, Cafe La Habana has been serving locals and ex-pats alike since 1952. There is undoubtedly a feeling of stepping back in time when one enters this relic of a restaurant. The space is large, open, sparse, utilitarian; while the high ceilings and bright lighting make the room seem even more vast. The clientele is diverse in both age and dress, but what stands out to me every time are the old, solitary men sipping their cafes, reading their papers or maybe just staring out the large glass windows on to the bustling streets, seemingly frozen in time, as much a part of the restaurant as the antique wooden bar or the vintage pump handle espresso machines. The faded sepia photos of old Havana complete the fantastically dated feel of the cafe. It even inspired me to sepia-tone my own photo that I took there just last week.
Any restaurant this old in the center of a city as cosmopolitan as Mexico City is bound to have many, many stories. The most famous of these as far as I know is that Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro met here over coffee in the time leading up to the Cuban revolution.
I am well aware of how charged a topic this is for many Cuban-Americans. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of Castro-loving or hating, I think it is fair to say that it is sad that the Revolution turned into yet another dictatorship and more than a little ironic that Che's likeness is now found on decidedly non-revolutionary and wholly entrepreneurial capitalist garb the world over. Despite this, there is no denying the enormous historical significance of this event and it adds an aura of intrigue to an already enchanting cafe.
Cafe La Habana, to its credit, does not exploit this purported story in any way. It is mentioned nowhere on their menu nor anywhere in the cafe. Another restaurant with that type of lore would have long ago covered its walls in Che paraphernalia and--of course-- have a entire gift shop with sickening amounts of Che-branded merchandise. Cafe La Habana, on the other hand, in contrast to its historic building, has a sleek and modern menu. And on said menu, despite the name and legendary connections to Cuba (at least for the ten-plus years I have dined there) they don't really even offer any Cuban food. What it does still offer despite this new menu look is a wide variety of Mexican breakfast staples.
It was for this reason I was here: To eat a big fat Mexican breakfast and sip on strong old-school espresso. In particular, having sated my need for properly prepared chilaquiles the day prior, I was craving a steaming plate of Motuleños.
Motuleños start a bit like huevos rancheros, and there are many different ways to prepare them but I like them best when done the way Cafe La Habana and so many other Mexico City cafeterias make them. It starts with a pair of fried corn tortillas upon which is spread a healthy offering of refried beans. Over each bean-covered tortilla is laid a fried egg--perfectly fried in the Mexican style in that the yolk is just hot--wonderfully runny so that it mixes in with the mildly spicy red tomato-chile sauce. Over that are sprinkled peas and somewhere in the middle is sliced ham. The final treat are the fried plantains placed around the edges of the plate.
It is an incredible and unique blend of sweet and savory. It is hearty and sloppy like so many good breakfast dishes, and one of the best parts--besides the perfect plantains--is sopping up the yolk-y tomato-y remains with big chunks of freshly baked Mexican bread.
As for the espresso? It was gritty, tar-black and would grow hair on a rock if you let it soak long enough. But it also had in the midst of its undeniable concentrated strength a delicate flavor, and on top a wonderful creamy head. It did leave me a little jittery--although that could have been the fact that it was my third coffee of the morning--all the better to continue my walk around the city center.
It was yet another great meal in Mexico City. There were once again many this trip but being that this blog is supposedly about food one can eat in and around Denver, I should probably get back to those places I ate at before I left for Mexico. Stay tuned as I return with great gusto to what I hope is more regular posting as my up-and-down life settles back to a manageable pace--that is as much as that is possible with a pair of nine month-old boys--oh, hark, I think I hear them squealing now.