Pedro Pena and Marialys Gonzalez serve an authentic (and delicious) menu of Cuban food seven days a week at Havana's Pilon on Madison Avenue.
At first, the three empanadas nestled in baskets seemed exactly the same. Yellow and white checkered paper cradled each one, and the fragrant turnovers looked warm and inviting, as if they had been toasted by a summer sun.
But the sameness disappeared once we broke them in two. From the first, ground beef and spices; from the second, chicken tumbled out; and from the third, a surprise that left me speechless: guava jam and warm cream cheese, a simple but memorable pairing of sweet and savory.
Welcome to downtown’s Havana's Pilon, a much-needed addition to the city’s growing lexicon of international restaurants. Operated by Marialys Gonzalez and Pedro Pena, who also do the cooking, the restaurant opened last year but expanded in December, doubling in size from one small room to two.
Like the restaurant’s sensible décor, the food is simple and sturdy, but affordable and delicious. Those empanadas? Only $2.50 each. And for under $10, the mofongo with jumbo shrimp includes a generous mound of mashed fried-green plantains seasoned with pork skin, garlic, and olive oil.
We ate several more dishes on our first visit to Havana's Pilon and were pleased with each one, especially our Cuban-style steak topped with onions and our bowl of beef soup buoyant with fresh vegetables, including sweet potatoes, carrots, and corn.
I had hoped to order a fried whole red snapper listed on the menu, but our charming server Ali Almatrood said to call ahead for fish in the evening. Otherwise, baked tilapia is available for Thursday specials, when $6.95 serves up the fish, two sides and water or soda. Other specials
are available during the week, including picadillo on Wednesday, a Cuban-style hash made with ground beef, tomato sauce, vegetables, and garlic.
Open for breakfast through dinner seven days a week, the restaurant is waiting for a beer license, so customers can bring their own for now or just go with the drinks on a menu. The espresso and tropical smoothie are both excellent.
Havana's Pilon, 143 Madison Ave. (901-527-2878)
Most of the Cuban sandwiches, plates, and sides at Havana's Pilon ring in under $10. Daily specials served Monday through Friday cost even less.