Casual Habana Cafe: An Authentic Cuban-American Experience
Casual Habana Cafe of Hackensack and New Milford offers customers a dynamic Cuban-American culinary experience. Chef Benito Rivero opened his Hackensack restaurant in March 2007 and designed his menu with authentic Cuban cuisine in mind, pulling recipes and techniques from Cuba in the 1950s. Cuban cuisine itself is a blend of indigenous Taino ingredients mixed with African, Spanish, and Caribbean influence. Rivero’s approach towards Cuban cuisine is twofold: he honors Cuba’s diverse culinary history by maintaining classic flavor profiles, while also adapting techniques from various cultures to elevate traditional dishes.
“I consider myself a Cuban-American,” the chef explained. “ I came from Cuba when I was nine. As a chef, I like to take approaches that are not necessarily Cuban, and so [my menu] is, in part, an expression of who I am. I would say that my approach is much more Pan-American; I take influences from everywhere.” Casual Habana’s take on chicken parmigiana is the perfect example of the menu’s approach. The dish, which is called Chicken Casual Habana, includes fried, breaded chicken breasts topped with tomato sauce, a layer of plantains, and a generous amount of cheese. The layer of plantains, a staple in many Latin American countries, creates a new element of flavor and texture in the classic Italian dish. “I also do a pork shank, which is not a way that [Cubans] butcher. That’s much more of a European cut. Cubans usually do pork chops instead: we dice them, cook them slowly, and then flash fry them at the end. So I take the shank and I treat it like a traditional Cuban pork chop. I cook it for a long time and then flash fry it, putting a classic mojo on top. The flavor profile is 100% Cuban where the cut and some of the approach is not necessarily ours.”
When asked if his technique could be considered a fusion of cuisine, chef Rivero had a strong opinion: “I hate the word fusion in cuisine because I think it means that you don’t do either [style of food] well. That’s my take on that.” Instead, Casual Habana’s menu is an expression of excellence. Rivero pulls flavors, textures, and techniques from different cultures, crafting new recipes with mastery over each element. The menu’s final result invites customers to experience varied cultural contributions, like Puerto Rico’s mofongo, Argentina’s chimichurri sauce, and Dominican Republic’s pastel de picadillo and plátano.
The menu also includes some untouched Cuban classics. “I do roast pork, the classic roast pork,” explained Rivero. “I was in Cuba when I was 19 and when my family received me they had a classic roast pork with a mojo sauce.” Other Cuban classics like ropa vieja, vaca frita, and masitas de cerdo are also customer favorites.
As Casual Habana Cafe’s success grew, Rivero opened his New Milford location in 2015. Formerly The New Milford Hotel, the building still maintains some of its original architecture on both the interior and the exterior. “The restaurant has an older 1930s,1940s kind of vibe,” said Rivero. The renovated restaurant offers outdoor seating in addition to the indoor seating and bar area that Hackensack also provides.
Rivero owns an event space too in Hackensack called Habana Room. “We provide a total party package: catering, staff, security, bar service, lighting, audio, decorations, etc.” The Habana Room is available for a range of private events, from weddings and baby showers to anniversaries and corporate meetings. Like the Hackensack and New Milford restaurants, the Habana Room boasts a similar menu of delicious Cuban-American dishes.
Casual Habana Cafe is located at 125 Main Street, Hackensack, NJ and 200 Main Street, New Milford, NJ. The Habana Room is located at 275 Main Street in Hackensack, NJ. To view Casual Habana’s menu, or to place an order to-go, head to casualhabanacafe.com.