Eating my way up and down Havana Street — a delicious endeavor I just finished — took nearly a year. Not everyone has the time or inclination to follow in my footsteps, though, so to save you time, I've narrowed my findings down to a list of must-try dishes and the places you’ll find them.
Aurora has attracted residents from around the world whose palates crave not only familiar dishes from their homes, but new cuisines as well. Peppered throughout the sprawl of chain restaurants littering Havana are a number of hideaways beckoning to adventurous diners. But these small eateries are more than just mom-and-pop shops; together they constitute a veritable United Nations of food and welcome anyone willing to try their exceptional fare. I skipped one or two well-known eateries that have received recent coverage in favor of newer or lesser-known joints; here are the ten best dishes I ate from my tour de Havana — listed from north to south.
1082 Havana Street, Aurora
The elote correado at El Bombón should be on the bucket list of every Denver-dwelling street-food snack addict. The dish integrates the indulgence of Mexican street corn with the bliss and familiarity of ballpark nachos. Instead of plain tortilla chips, El Bombón starts the novel repast with nacho cheese Doritos for a mind-blowing first layer, then tangy, shredded Monterey Jack is showered on, and jalapeño-studded nacho cheese is ladled over buttery white corn kernels that swim in pooling queso and melting butter. The hot mess is served gussied up with pickled jalapeños and a spiral of hot sauce. Crunch from the corn kernels and cheese-imbued chips is joined with the smooth creamy nacho cheese sauce. Subtle spice imparted by the hot sauce cuts through the richness of the Jack cheese and butter, making this an indulgence fit for a Guy Fieri-sized appetite. If you have room, complete your indulgent snack with a scoop of ice cream made with seasonally imported Mexican fruit.
Taqueria El Gallito
403 Havana Street, Aurora
There's something about the torta Cubana pictured on the fluorescent yellow menu at this Havana Street taqueria that can make a meat eater’s heart flutter. This kitchen sink-style sandwich contains myriad random ingredients and probably got its start the way many notorious dishes do — in an effort to reduce food waste by throwing a bunch of day-old ingredients together and hoping for the best. Lift the massive top piece of thick, griddled bread and you’ll find a trove of several seemingly unrelated ingredients: hot dog pieces, chorizo, a fried egg, provolone, queso, carnitas, ham, turkey chunks, avocado, tomato, and even a thin layer of refried beans. Although the torta defies the laws of sensible gastronomy, it instantly vanquishes all doubt the minute you sink your teeth into it. Each mouthful captivates your attention, invoking the question “How can so much go on between the two pieces of bread?” Creaminess from the avocado and queso, salty crunch from the fried carnitas, a meaty component from the seared ham, turkey and hot dog, subtle tanginess from the provolone, and a good dose of breakfast burrito from the chorizo, refried beans and egg all come together. Wash it all down with an imported Mexican soda, a piece of tres leches cake, and, to make your ride home more comfortable, some Prilosec.
Combination Beef Pho at Pho 99
1080 South Havana Street, Aurora
After following the same pho recipe for seventeen years, chef/owner Mickey Ha must surely be getting tired of such an unvarying routine. “After all these years, we still taste the broth every two hours to make sure it tastes right,” Ha affirms, however. And the chef advises diners to do the same: “Tasting pho is very much like tasting wine; if you taste the broth first, you can enjoy its various flavors and aromas. This way, you can also better assess the amount of accompanying herbs and sauces you will use to produce the flavor you are looking for.” Tasting before you add extras is a good rule of thumb for appreciating the complexity of the beefy broth and tenderness of the meats served within. The No. 8 contains five different cuts of beef: flank, rare steak, brisket, tripe and tendon. Pausing to allow the thinly sliced raw steak, flank and brisket to soak up the beefy broth while you slurp for a while will help the meat achieve its maximum tenderness and flavor, providing a juicy and supple element, while the tripe and tendon add texture and interest to the brew. No need to add typical condiments — hoisin and sriracha — to this pho; the delectably meaty, slurp-tastic broth stands on its own without any help from the ubiquitous rooster.
1155 South Havana Street, Aurora
Denver’s only Egyptian eatery opened its doors to the public on Havana street in February 2018. Koshari (pronounced “CUSH-er-y”) is the national dish of Egypt and the star on the brief menu. It's comfort food made with lentils, macaroni noodles, chickpeas and white rice; at Koshari Time, a few spaghetti noodles are intertwined in the mix as well. On top of the mountain of fiber-heavy goods rests a ladle of garlicky tomato sauce (your choice of spicy or mild) and a tangle of curly fried onions. Though the entree is typically eaten as a vegan dish in Egypt (even the onions here are fried in vegetable oil), at Koshari Time you can order yours plain or with halal chicken or ground beef atop the carby mound for a few bucks more. No noodle too mushy, no legume too firm, everything in the garlic-imbued dish is uniformly cooked to a toothsome texture, with the fried onions adding a crunchy layer and a touch of fat for contrast. So even if tickets to Cairo are not in your foreseeable future, sampling Egypt’s national dish right here in metro Denver can serve as temporary consolation.
1930 South Havana Street, Aurora
Great news for all you gluten-free folks: Fried chicken can finally be an option for you — as long as you don’t mind a little kick from your chick. "Angry" is an apt word to describe the poultry’s spicy flavor; golden and uniformly breaded with a savory rice coating on the outside and with a hot and spicy jolt on the inside, this chicken lets you know right away that it ain’t the Colonel’s recipe. Of the sauces available (some of which contain gluten, so be warned), the savory green-onion sauce stood out, pairing the viscosity of honey with aromas of onion and garlic. A painstaking process of marinating fresh chicken in a blend of proprietary sauces and spices for 24 hours before being fried yields delicious results. The rice-flour coating doesn’t absorb oil the way wheat-flour breading does, resulting in a crispy outer coating that looks just like the American classic. Beneath that, the meat is juicy, glistening and zesty. While you won't be left with an oil slick on your hands, you'll still go through plenty of napkins, since the sticky sauce coats every piece. All of the chicken is made to order, which takes fifteen to twenty minutes, but your patience will be rewarded. Just don’t forget the wet naps.