Bongos Cuban Café: Pretty Delicious for a Tourist Trap

The restaurants at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino are not exactly known for their subtle architecture. On giant two- and three-story façades, signs proclaim in eight-foot lettering: "Tequila! Italian Food! Burgers!" By comparison, Bongo's Cuban Café is extremely elegant. The building is a nondescript white with an espresso-brown wall. On it: just the restaurant's name and its mascot, the Cuban Bongo Player, his head down in concentration.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan opened the first Bongos in Orlando's Downtown Disney in 1997. The second location, adjacent to the American Airlines Arena in Miami, opened in 2000. Thankfully, the Ricky Ricardo-meets-theme-park décor of these previous two locations didn't make it to the Hard Rock.

Stepping inside the doorway of this 7,000-square-foot eatery for lunch, my friend and I were greeted by a large screen playing Gloria Estefan videos. A short staircase leads down to the main dining room, and a larger staircase leads up to a smaller balcony dining room. It's a little like a scene from Alice in Wonderland: Do I take the stairs up or down? Because I certainly can't stay here and listen to much more of "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." (Note to Gloria: I think you're amazing, but can you please play one of your more authentic Cuban songs like "Hoy" or "Mi Tierra"?)

The ceviche mixto is gonna get you.
Candace West
The ceviche mixto is gonna get you.

Location Info

Map

Bongos Cuban Café

5733 Seminole Way
Hollywood, FL 33314

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Davie/West Hollywood

Details

Bongos Cuban Café, 5733 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday to Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. The rooftop lounge is open Sunday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Call 954-791-3040, or click here.

The hostess came to our rescue and motioned us up the stairs, only to lead us down another flight of stairs back to the main dining room. The only reason I could imagine for this up and down is to show off the main dining hall in all its glory. And it is beautiful. A large chandelier over a communal table and four dark-brown pillars add depth to the room. There are pops of color from tables decorated with neon-red flowers and centerpieces featuring a single perfect lime on a dish. A large white bar at the far end opens to an outdoor area. Above the dining room, two white drum sets and two sets of white bongos rest upon a stage.

Sitting down for lunch in an oversized, crocodile-embossed vinyl booth, my friend and I were immediately presented with a smoking silver bowl. Our server introduced himself and explained that this was a lime and mint granita over dry ice. He asked if we would like a rum floater (complimentary), then poured a liberal shot. The granita was cold and refreshing; the lime, mint, and rum blended to form a delicious mojito slushie.

While we were still enjoying our granita, our server arrived with another treat — malanga chips with an onion mojo dip. Malanga is a tropical vegetable (cousin to the taro), and the chips proved a welcome and inspired change from the typical bread basket (though Cuban bread is always welcome at my table). They were crunchy without the slightest bit of grease. The onion dip was flavorful without being salty. I had to try a classic mojito, which was served in a lowball glass and potent without being too sweet.

We perused sandwiches from the lunch menu (they're not offered at dinner): the classic Media Noche (ham, pork, and cheese on sweet bread, $12) and Cuban sliders ($12) but settled on bistec de palomilla ($14) and shrimp ajilo ($21).

The bistec was a seared, thinly pounded sirloin, marinated in a garlic and mojo sauce. It was served with rice and plantains, a small cupful of black beans, and a piece of Cuban garlic toast. The steak was juicy and cooked beautifully but could have been marinated longer. The black beans had a hint of spices, but the portion was too small in relation to the rice on the plate. The best part of this dish was the Cuban garlic toast: simple but delightful.

The shrimp ajilo came sautéed in garlic herb butter and served with the same sides as the steak. The shrimp's sauce was wonderful — garlicky and buttery and reminiscent of New Orleans barbecue shrimp. Alas, this dish didn't come with any bread, a requirement to sop up the buttery juices.

After lunch, we were presented with a tray of coffee accessories — bowls of white sugar cubes, brown sugar cubes, chocolate chips, and cinnamon. Cuban coffee was made like they serve it on Calle Ocho — hot, dark, and already sweet (rendering the coffee accessories redundant but fun). The chocolate chips were useful to munch on while waiting for the dessert. A deconstructed Key lime pie ($10) was beautifully presented on a long white dish with alternating ovals of Key lime custard, vanilla bean ice cream, and a crispy cinnamon wafer.

The check arrived in a cigar box, accompanied by a pastry bongo. Since it came after we had finished coffee and dessert, we weren't quite sure whether we were supposed to eat it, look at it, or play it in an impromptu jam session. We decided to just admire it.

A few nights later, I returned for dinner with my husband. We passed Gloria on the big screen (still singing "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You") and decided to check out Bongos' Sky Lounge on the rooftop. Access to this area is via an elevator behind a white velvet rope, which is policed by an attractive young woman with clipboard and a burly man. Thankfully, there was no attitude, though I suspect it could get crowded around midnight. In the Sky Lounge, clean white lounge chairs and beds, along with strung-up white lights, create a sophisticated respite from the blaring sounds of the casino.

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10 comments
larry
larry

love the new look of bongos, more upscale, the food and drinks are a step up of the rest at the hard rock, live band great time, go see for yourself

Jack
Jack

I too had the "fried cow" and the same bad experience. The leftovers were even worse the next day. And, as the reviewer stated, I also couldn't find my waiter when I wanted the check.

Shopqnmom
Shopqnmom

@ Dennis: "They're Cubans for Pete's sake" very offensive! Respect 101 should have taught you not to generalize!

On another note, the review was obviously about the food rather than the night life. I am confident in saying the writer has had authentic Cuban cuisine; therefore, the review is valid in its ability to compare it to the real thing.

I agree, there should have been more authentic Cuban music, but feel "Rhythm is gonna get you" will appeal to the fact that the rhythm of the bongos may get you while you're there. Also, I believe they chose an English song since most who visit will be able to understand it better than a Spanish song.

After reading the review, I am in the mood for Cuban garlic bread, the granita, and "arroz con frijoles"! I have never been presented with a sugar tray, but I am not a coffee drinker. The bongo pastry that came with the bill is new as well as is the granita served upon arrival. I wonder if those are only typical of that location. After having eaten at Bongo's in Orlando and Miami, I look forward to visiting the one at Seminole Hard Rock Casino.

Furthermore, I have to say Bongo's is not just about the food, but the entire experience. As we know the food is not bad, but a bit pricey for the food I grew up eating. You are not paying for the food, you are paying for its presentation and the experience of eating at Gloria Estefan's restaurant. I have their cookbook and make some amazing dishes (with minor alterations), so going there would not be for the novelty of their dishes, but for a change of environment and at times, good music to dance to.

Dennis
Dennis

While I wouldn't agree that "consumer reviews" mean anything at all, I'd prefer to know how the food compares to authentic cuban cuisine. A "review" by someone who seems like they're tasting cuban food for the first time has no more value than reading yelp.

The problem with New Times' reviews is that you don't get a feel for what the place is all about. Yeah, the service sucks (they're cubans for pete's sake), and the food is overpriced and mediocre. But the place is really cool, and when dinner is over the music and the dancing is what the place is all about. You don't just go for the food.

Guest
Guest

Just look at the reviews by consumers on the web....the staff was rude, the food was so-so at best, and the whole experience was way over-priced. I agree with the other post!

Nvizble
Nvizble

Who the heck are you kidding??? This place is horrible and I will never go back!

Dennis
Dennis

Here on the mainland, we call that a "joke", Mom. Lighten up.

I'm sure you're quite wrong about the writer. New Times sends a food guy who knows nothing about sports to Mugs and a left wing blogger with no food credibility to a fancy cuban restaurant. It just makes no sense.

A. Writer
A. Writer

I've met the writer. I can assure you she is well versed in food. It stands to reason (I know, logic! It's CRAZY!) that an experienced writer could have knowledge and a background in more than one subject. Being a versatile talent keeps you employed in any arena.

 
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