Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bongo's Cuban Cafe

My mother, my son Jared, and I got to Downtown Disney nearly an hour ahead of our reservation at Bongo's Cuban Cafe, and this was a good thing for two reasons.  First, because the Downtown Disney complex just doesn't have enough handicap-only parking spots, and we ended up having to walk a while just to get to the restaurant.

And second, because once we got to the restaurant, I realized that the video card in my camera had been stolen by my brother Aaron.  Again.  I won't go into it here, but let's just say that this wasn't the first time I found myself without a video card because of my younger brother.  We used up our extra hour tracking down a new one in a shop located at the far end of Downtown Disney, opposite the end at which Bongo's is located.

In any case, you're not here to listen to me whine about inter-sibling problems.  You're here to find out about the restaurants.  So let's get to it.

Bongo's Cuban Cafe
Bongo's Cuban Cafe is yet another independently operated "licensed third-party partner" with the Walt Disney Company.  In this case, the "partners" are "the Queen of Latin Pop", Gloria Estefan, and her husband Emilio, which gives the cafe chain a bit of celebrity cache.  Now, I've been to other celebrity-owned restaurants, and can tell you the quality varies quite a bit.  I was slightly worried going in, because some of these places rest on their celebrity laurels and coast when it comes to quality of food and so on.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

As with the other independent restaurants, as Bongo's is operating on Disney property, and you can get reservations through Disney Dining Reservations, we're going to give it honorary "Disney restaurant" status for the purposes of the tour.

Bongo's is located in the middle of Downtown Disney's West Side, next to Wolf Gang Puck's Express West Side (to which we will be returning in a later entry) and across the street from the AMC Theaters Downtown Disney 24.  The easiest way to get there is to park in either Lot J or Lot K and walk into the complex between Splitsville (which is still under construction as I write this) and the AMC theater.

The restaurant is well lit and cheerfully decorated, but the interior struck me as being smaller than it looked from the outside.  The ground floor is dominated by a spiraling staircase leading to an upper floor which (from what I can tell) was not in use during lunch hours.

Jessica, the nice lady at the door.

While we were walking to our table, I made note of the interior of the place.  Given the presence of a gift shop, a fully stocked bar, a bandstand (empty, when we were there) and the already-mentioned staircase, the first-floor dining room was a lot smaller than it seemed to be from the outside.  The place was busy with people (nearly every table I could see had someone sitting at it), and the acoustics of the dining room, combined with the material (white marble as far as the eye could see) made the ambient noise in the room pretty loud.

The first floor dining room, as seen from our table.
Note the staircase on the left, and the bandstand to our immediate front, taking up space that in another restaurant would be filled by tables.

Unlike T-Rex, the background noise was made up of happy families cheerily talking to one another, or singing along with the Cubano music playing in the background, or just laughing and having fun.  Despite the fact that we all had to raise our voices to hear each other, we just didn't mind doing it.  There was a definite sense of "fun" going on in the joint from the moment we walked through the door.

Once seated at our table (also made of white marble, as Jared remarked upon), I took a minute to check out the rest of the room.  There were a lot of windows, and the lighting was almost completely natural, and gave the place the illusion of being a lot larger than it actually was.

Jared and me.  Note the big windows behind us.

Mom, studying the menu.
Again, check out the absolutely fantastic natural lighting.
The real treat, when it came to Bongo's decor, were between the windows.  Covering the walls between each of these magnificent windows were some absolutely fantastic mosaics made with a definite Florida/Caribbean feel to them.

Anyway, our waitress, a young lady named Kayleigh, stopped off, asked us to excuse her, and told us she'd be back in a moment to take our drink orders.  I kept an eye on her, because such things usually make me skeptical.  (Literally, the most common reason for a server to beg off immediately taking drink orders is incompetence, laziness, or both.)  In this case, I spotted quickly that Kayleigh was the only waitress in our section, and that our section included about eight different tables, none of which had less than three people.

Kayleigh, our waitress.
She earned her tips, believe me

Surprisingly, she was back in only a couple of minutes to take drink orders.  I considered a mojito, but decided against.  They don't have pre-sweetened iced tea at Bongo's, which is a mark against them in my book.  Sugar does not dissolve in cold water, so it is impossible to properly sweeten iced tea at your table.  I ended up getting a coke, as did both Mom and Jared.

In addition to the drinks, I also put in an order for the Black Bean Dip appetizer (with fried plantain chips), and Jared, who was ready to eat the table, decided he was ready, knew what he wanted, and put his dinner order in (he selected the Pollo a la Plancha (a grilled chicken breast) with french fries, as well as a cup of the Sopa de Pollo (chicken noodle soup).

By the time Kayleigh came back with the drinks, Mom and I were ready to order entrees.  Mom went with the Bistec de Palomilla (a tenderized steak seasoned with garlic and Mojo and topped with onions and parsley) and I ordered the Picadillo (criolla minced beef with onions, peppers, and olives, topped with a fried egg).  Both entrees came accompanied with white rice; Mom's was also accompanied by black beans and polenta cakes, while mine came with carmelized plantains.

Mom was disappointed that there was no liver and onions on the menu.  Higado a la Italiana (which means "liver Italian style"... and no, I don't know what makes it "Italian style" other than the fact that its served with bell peppers in addition to the onions) is one of the traditional dishes in classic Cuban cuisine, and the fact that its not on the menu was a bit of a let-down for my mother as its one of her favorite dishes. 

As the name reveals, Bongo's Cuban Cafe features Cuban food... or in some cases a good approximation of Americanized Cuban food.  For those unaware, Cuban food stems from classic Spanish cuisine, with a dash of African and Caribbean tossed into the mix.  Unlike a lot of other types of Latin cuisine, there's not a lot of heat here.  Rather than relying on peppers, the cuisine places emphasis on garlic, onions, herbs, and citrus juices (mainly lime juice).  As a result, a person can enjoy dishes that are flavorful and delicious without burning the heck out of their mouths in the process.

The Black Bean Dip Appetizer
The Black Bean Dip was served cold (which surprised me for a moment), but tasted good.  It's made of mashed black beans, with aioli, cilantro, tomotos, and sour cream, accompanied by fried plantain chips.  The beans themselves taste fresh, and the added notes of lime and garlic keep them from being the slightly blah taste that most refried-bean-style dishes tend to be.

The fried plantain chips were an excellent accompaniment, and came as a huge surprise to Jared, who previously had no experience with plantains at all.  He was doubtful about them at first, but after a few bites, he decided that "banana chips" were good eating.  And speaking of Jared, while were were munching on beans and plantain chips, Jared's lunch arrived.

Pollo a la Plancha
A seasoned, sauted chicken breast, with french fries.

Sopa de Pollo
Chicken noodle soup, with a difference.
The chicken breast, in Jared's own words, "had interesting spices on it"; he said that while it tasted different "from any chicken he's ever eaten", he also noted that it was "delicioso".  This is high praise from my son, who is notorious in our family for being the pickiest eater of them all.  The french fries were, also in his own words, "better than those at McDonald's"... the source of his favorite fries.  So apparently he has a new favorite.

The soup itself was a big surprise to me.  It was thicker than the standard chicken noodle soup, and had huge chunks of chicken floating in it.  In addition, it had big cuts of carrot and potato, and seemed more like a stew than a mere soup.  This, too, was declared "delicioso".  I tried a bit of it, and indeed the soup was pretty good.

Bistec de Palomilla
Not pictured:  the Black Bean Cup
Mom's steak, while not a first-class cut of meat, was almost fork-tender.  It had been seasoned with garlic and mojo, and was a perfect medium rare.  As Mom says, "this steak is delicious, that's what it is".  She was less-impressed with the polenta cakes, saying that they were "tough, chewy, and bland", and not to her liking at all.

She used her rice and black beans to make her own congri (Cuban black beans and rice, one of her favorite parts of Cuban cuisine), and was a bit disappointed that congri could not be found on the menu at all.

The picadillo was very tasty, especially once I cut the fried egg into very small pieces and mixed the runny goodness of the yolk in with the rest of the meat.  I swiftly cleaned the egg-and-meat mix out of the bowl and mixed it with the rice for full enjoyment.

My one complaint is that in addition to the beef, the onions and peppers and olives had also been minced... minced so well, in fact, that the cooks could have simply left them out of the mix and I'd have been none the wiser.  Seriously, it tastes good, but it had the consistency of sloppy joe meat, and as far as I am concerned, well-made Picadillo just isn't that... minced.  When I make it at home, in fact, I tend to use beef that's been small diced, not minced, and the veggies are also small diced.  This gives the dish a better mouth-feel in my opinion than finely dicing everything.  Its a minor fault, but a fault it is.

On the other hand, the carmelized plantains were perfect; honestly, they were the best part of my meal.

So... in summary, I can say that we all enjoyed our visit to Bongo's.  There were some small points of irritation (Mom's inability to order liver and onions, and the fact that she had to mix her own congri; Kayleigh being so much in a hurry that we sometimes had to ask three times before she managed to hear us ask for whatever we were asking for, the mouth-feel of the picadillo, and so on) that kept it from being a perfect meal, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

The problems were all small, and the food was tasty.  The total bill came to $60 and change, and my part of it (Mom was paying for herself, I was covering Jared and myself) came to just over $37 (with tip, the final bill was $44).

I can and will recommend Bongo's Cuban Cafe to my friends and family wanting to go somewhere that didn't serve the same old stuff.  Let's call it four stars out of five.

Next up:  The 2012 Epcot Food and Wine Festival!

1 comment:

  1. Cuban food is the best!! :)

    I will say, I'm not surprised your wife didn't enjoy the "polenta cakes". If thats what I thought they were I'd be disappointment too... but they're tostones... very different!