First Look: Sweet Banana's Grill Brings Cuban Cuisine North of the County Line

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When it comes to good Cuban food, Miami has it covered. Outside the island itself, it's hands-down the best place in the country -- never mind Florida -- to find authentic Cuban fare. But in Broward and Palm Beach County? It's not as easy as you might think. Luckily, that's changed with the recent opening of Sweet Bananas Grill, the new Florida-based chain of restaurants that have the look and feel of Chipotle -- only Cuban-style.

Founder and managing partner Jose Vilarino opened Sweet Bananas last November. Already the second location is up and running in Wellington, part of plans to expand statewide over the next few years.

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The concept is meant to complement the Vilarino family's long-standing heritage as South Florida restaurateurs. The Vilarino family has a touching history with South Florida, dating back to the early 1980s, when more than 100,000 Cubans abandoned their homeland island in a massive exodus. The Vilarino family was among those that made it through the turbulent journey. Determined to make the American Dream come true, Antonio and Nilda Vilarino and their five daughters opened the family's first restaurant in 1984, Las Vegas in Hollywood. Later, Vilarion's father opened the first Don Ramon's in West Palm Beach in what is today a growing family of restaurants across Palm Beach County.

Following in his family's footsteps, Vilarino decided to pursue his own dream: to open a fast-casual Cuban eatery that offered authentic fare at half the price -- and twice as fast. With a lime-green logo and modern interior décor, he dubbed the idea Sweet Bananas Grill. The menu offers a variety of Cuban and Latin-style main plates -- favorites like ropa vieja, picadillo, and mojo roast pork -- as well as the restaurant's own signature wrap creations ($6 to $11). Handmade empanadas are supercheap and as good as you'll get this side of Miami-Dade ($2), while most dishes are served in sandwich or wrap style ($7-$9), hand-pressed and delivered with a side of plantain chips and your choice of five house-made dipping sauces, including a creamy cilantro and mango habanero. Sides include fried or boiled yucca, hand-cut fries, steamed vegetables, and white or yellow rice ($1.50 to $3).

Our pick: For $7, you can get a real-deal Cuban sandwich, guaranteed to be one of the best around. And don't forget to wash it down with a $4 banana (or mango, mamey, or papaya) milk shake or Cuban coffee.

Sweet Bananas Fort Lauderdale is located at 4520 N. Federal Highway. The Wellington location opened April 14 and is located off Forest Hill Boulevard in the LA Fitness shopping plaza. For more information, visit the Sweet Bananas website and Facebook page.

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