Radio Habana isn’t a typical restaurant, and that’s how Victor likes it. Victor Navarete, a diminutive transplant from Cuba, and his wife, the exuberant Leila Mansur, opened Radio Habana in 1998, and the place hasn’t changed much since – which is a very good thing. In the late 90s/early 2000s, I belonged to a fledgling theater company that remained ever a fledgling. After rehearsals, over the span of three years, we spent countless hours at Radio Habana, drinking sangria, discussing theater and art, snacking on samosas and picadillo, drinking red wine, beer, popping outside for a cigarette, listening to whatever musical group decided to pop in, and basking in the general international flavor the place brought. It was an alive, lively place, and I’m delighted to say it still is. I hadn’t been in about 12 years, for no real reason other than that my theater company disbanded a long time ago, and I became distracted by so many other new Mission restaurants and bars. But none have the flavor of Radio Habana.
It was good to see Victor, a slip of a man who must be in his late 60s, still sporting his pony tail, still exuding vibrance and passion for the things he loves. He was only stopping by that night (neither he nor his wife work Saturday nights anymore), as he was off to partake in the Mission Art Performance Project, a bimonthly local art event in the neighborhood, encompassing street, art space, garage music and performance arts. Go, Victor, go!
As you will note from the Mission Local video, here, Victor never wanted to open a restaurant, nor a bar. Hence, Radio Habana Social Club. The surreal space is smaller than a lot of walk-in closets, and from there comes its intimacy and the ambience for good conversation. Victor wanted a place where people would share ideas, where poetry would collide with live performance, where intellectual discussion could thrive. The Dada-esque cubbyhole-cum-art-installation is his own masterpiece: ever-evolving, chock full of kitsch and crafty pieces as thought-provoking as they are whimsical, pieces to start a conversation from, Radio Habana is warm, cozy, inviting, and intriguing.
Even the floor space is art.
There are always various conversations going on in different languages and accents: it has always drawn an international crowd. On my recent visit with the BF, there was a group – three adults and two children (yes, it’s family-friendly too, in the earlier hours) – speaking a mixture of Italian, Spanish, and English. Behind us, a threesome of English lads were quaffing beers and playing at making little winged origami-like sculptures with cigarette papers. Soon after, a trio of young Indian-Americans arrived, followed shortly by some good old Mission hipsters. For all that, Radio Habana was always, and remains, the antithesis of a hipster poseur hot spot.
The food at RH is secondary to the conversation, but don’t let that stop you from ordering. The menu boasts a Cuban/Indian fusion flare. My favorite dish, from way back when, has always been the picadillo – a Cuban staple – a slightly spicy, ground beef stew with raisins and peas, served with yellow rice, beans, and a small, locally-grown salad.
Their rice was absolutely fantastic – flavorful and perfectly cooked (each grain separate, tender, yet firm), as were the black beans. The picadillo itself was good, perhaps not quite as good as I remembered. We also ordered a side of platanos maduros (fried ripe plantains), drizzled with crema (Central American sour cream, runnier than American sour cream). The plantains were tender and jelly-like, as they should be, nicely sweet, and went perfectly with the savory meal.
The BF ordered a special – pot chicken and sausage – which turned out to be a chicken stew-like affair with sliced kielbasa sausage, and the same rice/beans/salad. He thought my dish was better, and I had to agree. There was nothing wrong with his dinner, but the picadillo was better flavored.
The BF recalls that, when I was wooing him about 12 years ago, I brought him here, and we had the albondigas (Mexican meatballs) based on my raves. That would have to do for next time.
It was all very homey food, and we didn’t leave feeling stuffed, as you would at many Latin American places. Again, this is not a restaurant, per se; it’s a place to meet friends, have a copa (or a pitcher) converse, and have a bite. The menu also features samosas, Chilean empanadas, chicken tamales, and an Italian frittata. There are a few desserts on offer – flan, cheesecake, chocolate and rice puddings – but I’ve never tried them.
It is later at night when Radio Habana becomes what it’s truly meant to be. You’ll hear snippets of political discourse, art ravings, and music musings. Conversations grow animated, fueled by the copious cups of sangria and vino; agitprop is contemplated, anarchy entertained… You will probably be out past your bedtime. On a Tuesday night.
I went back with out-of -town friends a few nights later. Victor and Layla were both in the house – Victor in the kitchen, and Layla acting as bartender, server, greeter, and all around shit-stirrer – the lady knows how to light a fire under her customers! One of her talents is to walk around the room, chat with one group, start a conversation, fan it, and let it flame up on its own, before she sits down at another table.
We’d already eaten earlier, but I went ahead and ordered a plate of those famous albondigas, and a samosa and salad tapa.
The albondigas were just as I remembered – saucy and flavorful, served again with those rice and beans. My friend’s husband loved the samosa with its flakey crust, and even though we’d already had dinner, we made quite a dent in those plates.
As we were leaving, my friend’s husband said, “Boy, I could have sat in there for hours!” And that’s exactly how they want you to feel.