Chef Alex Habana
Chef Alex Habana

Bringing a taste of Cuba to Irvine

Chef Alex Moreno is a man who eats agave worms, keeps a tortoise named Geronimo and grows finger limes (“they’re different than any lime you’ve ever tasted”) in his backyard.

He’s competed on “Chopped” and won. He’s cooked at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant; prepared meals for Van Halen and Destiny’s Child; and served as Chef de Cuisine at Tres Agaves, voted one of the top 10 restaurants in San Francisco in 2005.

Now he’s executive chef at Habana, a new restaurant at Irvine Spectrum Center, serving up award-winning food reminiscent of old-time Cuba. We caught up with him to ask a few questions.

How did you get started?

My first job as a cook was at Mélisse restaurant in Santa Monica working under Chef Josiah Citrin. I remember walking into the kitchen and my mouth dropping because of all the copper pots and cast iron pans. The food was served on beautiful Bernardaud plates, using nothing but the best products. Every Wednesday we went to the farmers market and were the first there, hand-picking everything we’d use at the restaurant.

The biggest lesson I learned was, “Make it nice or make it twice,” meaning if it’s not perfect, don’t serve it!

Please give us a cooking tip.

One easy tip is to always taste and season your food. I was taught to season your food three times — once in the beginning, then again in the middle to make sure the flavors are being developed, and then at the end to make sure it tastes perfect. We use kosher salt at Habana. It’s worth the investment to buy a finishing salt, like Maldon Salt, to season your food after cooking.

Most popular order at Habana?

Our Ropa Vieja, which also happens to be one of my personal favorites. It’s one of those comfort dishes you never get tired of eating. Beef is cooked for hours, then shredded and cooked again with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices for a couple more hours. The flavors just melt together and create an amazing dish that is made with so much love. It’s served over buttered white rice with our sofrito black beans and sweet plantains. It is a must-have.

Any food you cannot stomach?

Not really. I’m an adventurous eater. I remember the first time I ate an agave worm. Those guys are fat and creamy and about the size of your finger. I ate them while traveling in Mexico, served in a taco. If you have never had them before, it is definitely an acquired taste. Once you bite down, they just explode in your mouth and coat the inside of it. If you ever get a chance to try it, just be prepared and make sure you have a shot of tequila to wash it down!

What was it like competing on the Food Network’s hit show “Chopped?”

It was such a thrill! I trained at home to practice, and my wife would supply the baskets. The episode I was on was called, “Tapas Time.” We didn’t prepare just one dish per course, but two to three dishes using all of the ingredients — tapas style. Talk about an adventure. You need to be calm, cool, fast and super organized. We were all in shock — it was funny. I made cava granita, spiced hot chocolate and churros for the dessert course. The best part was winning!

Someone who’s never had Cuban food should definitely try _____.

Our Cubano pressed sandwich. It’s amazing! We slow-roast our pork shoulder for eight hours, covered in garlic and spices. We serve it together with applewood-smoked ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and a roasted garlic yellow-mustard aioli on a French-style roll. We smother the sandwich with butter and press it in a panini press. Crispy, cheesy, tart and savory — what more could you ask for?