SRQ Magazine | February 2017
Cubans don’t hold back—with everything from music to flavors, literature to dance, the people of Cuba know how to heat things up. Utter the word “Cuba” and within an instant, the mind’s eye pictures a culture throbbing with color and surging with electricity, a bricolage of dominant spices, pastel ‘60s “yank tanks,” ecstatic percussion and balmy machismo. All of which can be found on the (not-so-mean) streets of Southside Village, specifically inside the spirited walls of newcomer Mojo’s Real Cuban (pronounced “mo-hos”).
The experience once inside is immersive, with salutes to the motherland hiding in plain sight—passionate voices of Celia Cruz, Los Van Van and Compay Segundo ring out from the speakers, the wood tables painted with fiery splashes and stripes of sunny saffron yellow, channeling the architectural palette of Havana, while the bold red triangle of the Cuban flag hangs proudly at the front door. Cuba is everywhere in the fast-casual restaurant, from the rhapsody of smells coming from behind the counter to wall murals of classic American cars along El Malecón.
Albert, Adam and Austin Myara, the father-son(s) team behind the new restaurant and the original Lakewood Ranch location, want to infuse the space with a paladare sensibility—non-government regulated, in-home secret restaurants that dominated the Castro era and have made waves in Cuba since the ‘90s—now widely considered to be representative of the best and most pure cuisine in the country. “When you go to Cuba, you have to look for the restaurants that have paladare in the name,” says Adam. “That’s when you know you are getting authentic Cuba.”
With this integrated-with-the-family style dining in mind, the Myaras pulled both recipes and trinkets from the home of Adam’s Cuban mother-in-law, her aged stovetop espresso maker and ornately decorated peacock-blue set of Cuban coffee cups perching on the white cabinetry that dominates the front dining room. The half patterned tile, half chalkboard backsplash in the center of the wide shelves sets forth Mojo’s handwritten mission, welcoming patrons into their home, cooking for all who are “seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality,” the kitchen left open for diners to see the processes, “so it feels like you are part of a family kitchen,” says Adam.
The same street-savvy “hidden gem” vibe ensconced in the paladare ethos comes through in the customizable bowls, traditional sandwiches and straight-from-Little-Havana sides and desserts flowing out of the kitchen on a daily basis. With a chef plucked from the Cuban streets—and a dedicated search for a roster of favorite signature flavors from Havana to Tampa—the menu finds its stride in the most traditionally Cuban recipes. For the Cuban sandwich (or Cubano), smoky-sweet pulled pork hitches a ride alongside rough-sliced ham, a mustard/mayo sauce, pickles and Swiss cheese, all pressed to gooey nirvana on exceptionally crusty Cuban bread shipped in from Tampa.
Bowls start small and work their way up to a dynamic upswing; a base of congri (Cuban rice and black beans) layers below red or black beans forming a base for the proteins to shine—for pork, find the lechon asado (marinated, slow-roasted). For beef: either the picadillo for ground and saucy or the vaca frita for stewed, shredded, marinated and seared. Steak: the out-of-this-world ropa vieja for shredded and tomato-saucy. Finally, for chicken: the pollo asado is as solid a choice as any. Side dishes such as lightly breaded croquetas (think fried ham and cheese), maduros (ripe and rich sweet fried plantains) and papas rellenas (golden-fried mashed potato and seasoned beef balls) hold their own next to the made-to-order large dishes, the distinctive aromas enveloping the little restaurant indicative of Cuba’s superlative flavor profile.