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 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.
Looking forward to the lime granita, I wasn't disappointed. Almost immediately, a server popped out with a smoking bowl of icy goodness and proceeded to dump a few shots of Bacardi into the mix.
We opted to start with the ceviche mixto ($16), which arrived in a coconut. Generous morsels of calamari, grouper, octopus, and shrimp were marinated in coconut milk, lime, jalapeño, and cilantro. More than enough to share, the ceviche was fresh and colorful — white fish, pink shrimp, and purple octopus mixed with fresh greens to form a little seafood rainbow on my plate. A great starter, especially for a balmy South Florida evening.
The pollo a la plancha ($21) was the largest chicken breast I've ever seen. It encompassed the entire length of my dish. Sometimes big portions can lead to disappointing flavors, but this chicken was juicy with just the right amount of salt, garlic, and lime. The dish came with the now-anticipated mound of rice and a tiny cuplet of beans. In a bit of foresight, I ordered a side of pan-toasted Cuban garlic bread ($5) and was not disappointed. In fact, if I'm ever trapped on a deserted island, I would want to be trapped with Cuban garlic toast.
The vaca frita ($25) literally translates into "fried cow," and that's exactly what my husband got. Fried shards of cow — including the meat, gristle, and fat, were presented on a plate. I tried a piece and got some fried fat. The second time around, I managed to get some meat. The meat was tough on the inside, greasy on the outside. It required a lot of chewing.
When dessert came around, our server offered us a dessert menu but no sugar tray. We chose the traditional vanilla bean flan and Cuban coffee. When I asked where the sugar tray was, the waiter replied, "Cuban coffee already has sugar in it." The flan was classic — firm and jiggly with a rich vanilla-bean taste. A piece of pineapple on the side gave it a perfect touch of acidity for balance.
Our server brought our check, again in a cigar box, but no bongo cookie. I would have asked for one but couldn't find him. In fact, it was a good 15 minutes before I was able to give him our credit card. By then, I was in no mood for it.
Ultimately, Bongos is a terrific-looking slice of South Beach in Hollywood. The décor is straight out of a music video set; you can picture Gloria singing on the stage. The food is fresh and beautifully presented; no qualms there. But a restaurant needs a heart as well as flash. Bongos will do well with the crowd of casinogoers and tourists at the Hard Rock. But as far as authentic cuisine goes, ask a Cuban friend for an invite to Sunday dinner. And bring the dry ice.