Written By South Beach Annie
Right on Ocean Drive between 8th and 9th Street is a little slice of Cuba and the experience of “Cubania.” What I mean by “Cubania” is the warmth and easy fun nature that is typical of Cuban culture and is alive and well in the Estefan’s restaurant chain.
As soon as you walk in Casa Larios and out of the “see and be seen” outdoor dining area for Ocean Drive, you experience the old timer Cuban memorabilia on the walls, Bacardi bottles galore on the bar shelves, sugar cane, and both Celia Cruz and Buena Vista Social Club music spun by the restaurant DJ. Then there is more…walk deeper into the restaurant and see the family atmosphere seating up to 12 at some wooden tables, the warm red and brown hues all around and, La Virgen de la Caridad, patron saint of Cuba watching over from a mural on the wall. Eric Sierra of the “Walt Disney World’s Bongo’s” restaurant oversees all the Estefan establishments and says the primary concern for the past 10 years is “having fun” and “to always exceed our guest’s expectations.” Everyone on staff from Gustavo Rocha, the general manager, to the bus boys feel part of the Estefan family and philosophy to truly enjoy the experience of the space they work in. It truly becomes an experience. “The primary focus is personal attention. Everyone loves being here and feels a strong sense of belonging.”
My waiter, Pablo, served me mariquitas (plantain chips) for me to nibble on while my guest searched for parking on the busy streets of South Beach. I was told he didn’t have to worry since the restaurant has front door valet parking service. However, I enjoyed taking the sites and sounds of the span of ages and wardrobe surrounding me. While sipping on some sparkling San Pellegrino, I admired the truly Cosmopolitan ambiance of South Beach in a casual family setting. Suddenly I was treated to a copy of the Estefan’s new recipe book by Eric. I paged through the book and admired the pictures of traditional Cuban cuisine with a twist.
First up was a pair of stuffed green plantain cups with shrimp Creole was placed in front of me as an appetizer. The baby shrimp were cooked to perfection and the plantain cups were crisp and fresh. It was followed by a traditional chicken soup for me and a creamy plantain soup for my guest as well as three ham croquettes to go with it.
While I had a traditional Mojito, my companion enjoyed a more daring Mango Mojito. It was very refreshing and not too sweet. My fear with fruit infused drinks is always the sugar content, but when fresh fruits are used they are absolute perfection.
Our meal continued with samplings of the three varieties of Vaca Frita (Cuban-Mojo-Marinade) showcased by Casa Larios using beef, chicken and pork instead of just the traditional steak version. We also tried the creamy Arroz con Pollo (chicken with yellow rice), both green and sweet plantains, and two variations of Seafood medleys. For the lighter palate, there is the Mariscada, a grilled variety of seafood including shrimp, scallops, lobster, sea bass with a hint of tartar sauce. The more traditional Cuban seafood Zarzuela of Mariscos was my favorite featuring the same seafood combination in a perfect tomato based “enchilada” sauce without overpowering the taste of freshness of all the fish. We enjoyed Watermelon and Pineapple Mojitos with our main course.
Our evening ended with the Cuban traditional desserts of Cascos de Guayaba and Coconut Flan. The Cascos de Guayaba are candied guava halves with cream cheese. The flan was topped with shredded coconut and caramel.We sipped on Cuban Coffee and the lighter Cortadito Cuban coffee with a shot of milk until we said our goodbyes and good night. Dining at Larios felt like a family outing with the glamour of South Beach all mixed into one fabulous experience.-DUO