By Jessica Wolfrom
Thinking of Cuban food, we conjure up the island’s famed sandwiches, strong coffee and sugary rum cocktails. But Cuban food is so much more; it’s a confluence of cultures, ideas and people, mashed together to delicious effect.
“The history of Cuban cuisine has incredible influence from around the world, from Africa to Spain, Portugal and France,” says Mario Monte, chef and co-owner of Colada Shop.
Monte, who was born in Miami to a Cuban father and Italian mother, doesn’t seem at all surprised by the uptick in Cuban outposts around the District. “The resurgence of popularity in this pearl of an island just proves that how good its flavorful origins are as well as the vibrancy of its people,” he says. Now, Washingtonians can experience more Cuban flavors at a number of spots around the DMV. We’ve rounded up the best of the new.
Coladas and conversation come easy at this 14th Street NW Corridor café. But Colada Shop serves more than just rum-drenched cocktails. This colorful shop from Barmini alum Juan Coronado, chef Mario Monte and Daniella Senior opened its doors (and walk-up bar window) to the District last February following the success of its original shop in Sterling, VA.
During the day, the shop brews the real-deal Colada—four shots of espresso sweetened with sweet crema and served with demitasse cups to share—as well as other caffeinated Cuban favorites like a cortadito (espresso steamed evaporated milk and foam) and café Cubano, a shot of coffee sweetened with crema.
Start your day with a potato and sofrito tortilla or a classic Cuban tostada. For lunch, the shop offers a lineup of sandwiches like the famous Cubano (ham, slow-roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles and cilantro on Cuban-style bread) or the croqueta preparada (crispy chicken croquet served over ham and Swiss). Late-risers can snag empanadas, croquetas or pastelitos at any time.
By night, rum cocktails flow to Caribbean beats and spending time here with friends is hard to beat.
Colada Shop DC, 1405 T St. NW, Washington, DC
Colada Shop VA, 21430 Epicerie Plaza, Sterling, VA
When Alfredo Solis and Joseph Osario teamed up to open Little Havana, a colorful Cuban eatery in Columbia Heights, their mission was to bring Cubano food to the district.
The space is a multichromatic celebration of Latin American culture. The walls are adorned with murals by artist Ernesto Zelaya, who painted portraits of Cuban icons including revolutionary leader Che Guevara, Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez and “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz.
But the food here is the main attraction. Hearty dishes like braised oxtail, Cuban chicken stew, jerk salmon and guava barbecued ribs showcase Cuban home cooking and the lineup of sandwiches includes the iconic Cubano as well other versions brimming with slow-roasted shredded pork, grilled chicken or chorizo. Shaking your cocktails is Copycat Co. veteran Heriberto Casasanero, who’s taking tiki seriously, serving up rum-focused drinks in frozen pineapples and coconuts.
Little Havana, 3704 14th St. NW | littlehavanadc.com
El Sapo Cuban Social Club
In Cuba, when people play the lottery or make bets they place their fate in la charada china, a mystical guide of numbers and pictures deeply rooted in Cuban superstition.
When Havana-born chef Raynold Mendizábal opened El Sapo in Silver Spring last year, he bet on the number 22. Mendizábal, who’s also the chef at the nearby Urban Butcher, opened El Sapo exactly 22 years after fleeing Cuba and stepping onto American soil. According to la charada china, the number 22 corresponds to el sapo: the toad.
Mendizábal has said that he wants his guests to entrar bailando, or “come in dancing.” And even for those of us with two left feet, it’s hard to resist the rhythm here. As you enter, Latin music and mojitos fill every corner. Mendizábal’s meat-heavy menu highlights both the foods of his childhood and the foods that defined his culinary journey from Cuba to the United States. You will find the Cuban national dish, puerco asado (roasted pork) as well as Mendizábal’s favorite childhood dish rabo encendio (fiery oxtails). Drinks flow freely from the rum cart, and the chef makes sure meals wrap up with their famous cortaditos or Cuban coffee, ensuring you leave the same way you entered: dancing to the music.
El Sapo Social Club, 8455 Fenton St., Suite #1, Silver Spring, MD | elsaporestaurant.com