Thursday, November 9, 2000

The rhythm and food are going to get you

Posted on Thu, Nov 9, 2000 at 4:00 AM

When I walked into the giant pineapple housing Bongos Cuban Café, I wasn't sure what to expect. As we are all aware, the 470-seat restaurant at Downtown Disney is the brainchild of singer Gloria Estefan (there's another one in Miami), and the combination of the Mouse and the Diva made me wary.

I went early to avoid the inevitable theme park rush, and was seated at the only table actually under the winding concrete staircase that leads up to the second-floor lounge and live music area in the light, pineapple-themed – and at this point, nearly empty – room. I changed tables immediately, and waited for the expected disappointing meal. I waited in vain.

To put it succinctly, dinner at Bongos is superb. Chef Quintin Larios is, if anything, conservative when it comes to his takes on Cuban cuisine. For instance, the appetizer Tostones Rellenos con Camarones ($9.50), tiny shrimp or beef in a thick and tomatoey creole sauce, presented in deep-fried cups made from green plantain. The plantain, more like potato than banana, gives a pleasant earthy taste to the mild dish. Ask for extra creole on the plate and Bongos own hot sauce to add some needed kick. For more authentic starters, order the Tamal en Hoja ($6.75), polenta with seasoned pork and wrapped in a corn husk, or ham croquettes (Croquetas de Jamon; $5.25)

Main courses affirm the talent in the kitchen. Mariscos Salteados ($26.95) is a simple combination of seafood in a garlic, butter and wine sauce. It had me eating with eyes closed to savor the perfectly prepared baby scallops, green mussels, mild white fish, tender calamari, grilled shrimp and a toothsome lobster tail that easily lifted out of its half-shell and was eagerly devoured. Pollo Asado ($14.95) was a tender marinated half-chicken, served with a slightly different version of the creole sauce from the appetizer – here it was more piquant and nicely set off the very juicy grilled chicken, virtually falling off the bone. Entrees come with green or sweet plantains, and the choice of rice and black beans is a good one, tasty without inauthentic seasonings and not the least bit dry, as Frijoles Negros can be at times.

There's live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 7 to 10:30, featuring Latin bands that will make it hard to sit still. Even Desi Arnaz Jr. has played there.

My waiter was an attentive and helpful chap who knew the menu, checked on me at all the proper intervals, and made good suggestions, like dessert of a cortadito – a small Cuban version of espresso – and Flan de Leche. Pumpkin-pie colored and covered in sweet caramel sauce, the creamy texture of this simple custard is a delight to the mouth and one of life's simple pleasures.

Oh, and one more thing: Babaloo!


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