Bongos Cuban Cafe is a shimmery new edition to Seminole Paradise, the fifth branch of the festive restaurant launched by Miami super couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan. This Bongos is a little different, though. It’s owned by the restaurant group CB5 (Tatu), which has a licensing agreement with the Estefans.
Celebrities are often involved with restaurants in name only, but CB5 officials say the couple had a “strong presence” in shaping the decor and menu at the nearly 4-month-old, $5-million restaurant and lounge at the entertainment complex next to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood.
The setting, more elaborate than other Bongos, is meant to be reminiscent of a ’40s Havana supper club with a contemporary, high-decibel vibe. Gleaming in silver and white, the 7,000-square-foot, 280-seat restaurant has fancy chandeliers and a 20-foot window where you can watch flames shoot up in an elaborate rotisserie. One side of the bar is topped by a stage and the other extends outside to the patio, and there’s a mezzanine overlooking the dining room.
On one visit, our service was excellent, and the next time it lagged. The music is so loud you practically have to shout your order, so no wonder our waiter brought us fried plantains instead of tostones.
You might see Pit Bull or Dennis Rodman stop by, so it’s not your typical Cuban café — especially with $6 Cuban bread and $24 ropa vieja. But for the most part, the food is traditional.
Diners are greeted with a steel ramekin of granita — a scoop of shaved ice infused with lime and fresh mint, served over dry ice so it arrives in a billowing cloud. At no charge, the waiter will top it off with a splash of Bacardi, turning it into a frozen mojito (the bar offers a variety of killer concoctions).
We were most impressed with the beginning and end of our meals. We liked the complimentary malanga chips with a creamy roasted onion mojo dip (a fine alternative to the bread basket). Crisp croquetas, based on an Estefan recipe, are some of the best we’ve had, filled with ham and potato and drizzled with béchamel.
The rock shrimp were also a hit, tossed with a kicky yellow pepper sauce, but the ceviche mixto — shrimp, calamari, grouper and octopus in coconut milk spiked with lime and chiles and served in a young coconut — didn’t have that fresh, citrusy tang.
Our favorite entree was the camarones ajillo, juicy shrimp sautéed with garlic-herb butter and served with white rice and black beans. We were annoyed, though, with the tiny cup of black beans on a $28 dish. The waiter brought us more at our request (it never hurts to ask).
Thick-cut double pork chops were well-seasoned but a little chewy, and gorgeously charred rotisserie chicken was dry.
Other entrees include a whole snapper, paella (it takes 30 minutes) and rib-eye (we’d prefer it without an overwhelming caramelized garlic sauce). A side of spinach sautéed in olive oil with garlic, pine nuts and raisins was a treat.
If you won at the poker table, you can afford to end your meal with a $3,800 bottle of Louis XII cognac. The rest of us can enjoy ultra-rich croquetas de chocolate, coffee tres leches cake with dulce de leche ice cream or, for something lighter, rice pudding and fresh mango. Everyone gets a tasty, complimentary, bongo-shaped tuile.
Bongos will likely appeal to visitors out for a good time at Seminole Paradise, but for homey Cuban cooking, we’re still betting on our neighborhood café.
If you go
Place: Bongos Cuban Cafe & Sky Lounge
Address: Seminole Paradise, 5733 Seminole Way, near Hollywood.
Rating:★ ★ (OK)
Contact: 954-791-3040, bongoscubancafe.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily, 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday (lounge open later).
Prices: Starters $8-$18, small plates $12-$16, salads $12-$14, entrees $21-$42, sides $6, desserts $9-$12
FYI: Live music Thursday-Saturday. Free salsa lessons 8-10 p.m. Tuesday at Sky Lounge. Free parking garage. AX, DS, MC, VS.