Mexican food is becoming much more popular in Tokyo these days. Imported fast food burrito chains are popping up around Harajuku, Roppongi and Shibuya as well as some authentic (well… some maybe not so much) sit-down type restaurants and Mexican-themed bars. There really aren’t enough casual spots, though, where you can just stop by for lunch or dinner and feast on some real, home-style Latin food. Now, one is finally here: the beloved Cuban-Mexican diner from Nolita-Manhattan that even New Yorkers wait in line for — Café Habana.
Ever since they opened a few months ago, there was the high probability that there would be a two-hour line (like Clinton St. Baking Company or Shake Shack and every other New York import) for their famous grilled corn — and Miss P hates waiting. But on a recent first-time visit, it was surprisingly quiet and low-key, maybe because it’s slightly tucked away on a quiet side street. Walk ten minutes from Shibuya or Daikanyama — when you spot the bright, blue wall from the corner of your eye, head toward it and a little Habana paradise will be waiting for you.
Their famous Mexican-style grilled corn (¥350 half, ¥600 full) is a must-have. Once you taste the addictive combination of creamy Cotija cheese, spicy chili powder with a squeeze of lime, you’ll never think of grilled corn the same again.
Another classic is the Cubano sandwich (¥800 half, ¥1,400 full). The signature combination of flavors and textures — the warm, crunchy Cuban bread pressed like a panini; chunks of citrus-marinated roast pork with a slice of ham; the swiss cheese melting together with some spicy chipotle mayonnaise and the pickles that add a tarty sweet crunch — leaves little doubt as to why it was voted one of New York’s best sandwiches. This is one that you certainly won’t find easily in Japan.
Their full menu offers authentic and classic Cuban-Mexican dishes such as sweet plantains, tostones (fried plantains), tortilla soup and a series of entrées with rice and beans from camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) to grilled skirt steak. It has a full drink menu with Mexican beer (¥800), tropical cocktails and café con leche or café Cubano to finish your meal Cuban-style along with dessert options – New Orleans-style beignet with piña colada cream! Oh and there’s a kid’s plate, too.
The café is surprisingly spacious with two levels of seating and a bar counter. There is also a third seating section — a dimly lit mirrored corner room with a Havana disco-bar mood — which is a little cozier for evening dining.
The bright blue seats (a Café Habana signature), wooden floors, string lights, sunny yellow walls with palm leaves and street art styled paintings of dead celebs like Bruce Lee and David Bowie — and Che Guevara — with a mix of “Waterfalls” by TLC, reggae, hip-hop and American Top 40 songs playing in the background — give the place a nostalgic vibe. The palm tree motif adorning the golden yellow walls bring a cabana feel. Facing a quiet street, you can almost imagine a sandy beach beyond the windows instead of all that concrete — or at least Miss P does.
The staff is charming and friendly. Some of them speak English and they are very welcoming. The menu is in English and Japanese. Wi-Fi is available with a password. They also have a take-out menu and stand if you want to take some grilled corn and tortas (grilled sandwiches) back to your office (and make everyone jealous) or have a mini-Cuban fiesta on your balcony with your own Corona and lime.
The Reason Miss P visits
It’s a great place to get a Latin food fix in an easygoing, hideaway atmosphere. The portions and prices maybe aren’t as exciting as the food, though (when you think of having a Latin meal at a diner). The small things — like the diced tomato and chopped mizuna (Japanese greens) that came with the sandwich or the teriyaki chicken torta and taco rice on the menu —will remind you that you’re still in Japan, but the heart of the menu — the Cubanos and the grilled corn — will have you feeling a world away. A perfect spot to sit for a few hours jotting revolutionary thoughts or sketches in a notebook, drinking one café con leche after another or enjoying a rum cocktail… or two.
Café Habana still seems to be under the radar and hopefully it will continue to be quietly popular. I have yet to find out what the night vibe is like — care to join me for a mojito?
Tastefully yours, Miss P♡
2-11 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
A 10-minute walk from either Shibuya or Daikayanyama stations.