Mojo's is the brainchild of brothers Austin Myara and Adam Myara, whose family owns Bogey’s Sports Pubs in both Bradenton and Venice and Ed’s Tavern in Lakewood Ranch. They opened the Lakewood Ranch spot with the Southside Village location already in mind after connecting with Cuban chef Will Marquez. Along with the forthcoming eatery Veronica Fish & Oyster, Mojo's is poised to add another jolt to an evolving Southside Village dining scene. (Tragically, exciting plans for a Brick's Barbeque restaurant in the same strip as Veronica and Mojo's have fallen through. Tears made out of barbecue sauce are rolling down my cheeks at the thought of the brisket I won't be eating.)
If you've been to Chipotle, the setup at Mojo's is instantly recognizable. You select a bowl ($8.50) or platter ($10.50), then choose among a selection of meats, rices, beans and add-ons. The meats are mostly Cuban mainstays: roasted pork, ropa vieja, vaca frita and more. For $8.50, Mojo's also offers pressed Cuban, medianoche and pork sandwiches.
The design is mod industrial, with exposed ducts and cross-beams and brick walls lined with portraits of Havana street scenes. Men in pleated khakis bend over steaming bowls of food. Cackles of laughter erupt every few minutes.
The front room offers a handful of tables; back behind the counter, an eight-seat bar provides a front-row seat to the goings-on in the kitchen. One employee slices limes in half on a cutting board that's decorated with bits of chopped herbs and stained green in the middle. He squeezes the juice from half a lime into a large container loaded with tomato, onion and cilantro. "We should get a lime juicer," he wisely suggests to a co-worker, who's busy slapping together Cuban sandwiches and placing them in a clear plastic box so they can be quickly cooked later.
The vaca frita ("fried cow") is mind-bendingly good. The meat has been sizzled to a deep, dark brown on the outside, with a rare crunch, but the beef hasn't dried out. Wide slices of onion that have been sautéed but not softened all the way offer a touch of textural contrast. The beans and rice on the side are well-garlicked, but a bit dry, while the superb tostones manage to be both dense and flaky at the same time. (For sides, you can also select fries, fried yuca or sweet plantains.) What really elevates everything on my plate, though, are Mojo's sauces, dispensed from a small counter out front. A viridsecent chimichurri is tart and garlicky, while a creamy pink number offers a piquant upgrade to whatever is dipped in it. A red sauce billed as spicy is, sadly, not spicy at all.
Mojo's Cuban sandwich is a traditional take on an entrée that needs no embellishments. It's pleasantly mustardy, and the rich, juicy pork is bomb-like. To drink, try a Materva soda ($3), which to me tastes like Red Vines in liquid form—in other words, perfect. Feeling sleepy after downing all the meat? Sip a cortadito ($2.50), a pull of espresso mixed with a small bit of whole milk (and sugar, if you like, which you should).
I don't get out to Lakewood Ranch very often, but a meal at Mojo's is worth my drive. Still, I'll be happy to head for Southside Village instead, once location two opens in a few weeks. If they do it up like the Lakewood Ranch spot, we should indeed be excited. Yes.
Mojo's Real Cuban is located at 11161 E. State Road 70, Ste. 103, Lakewood Ranch. Call (941) 756-0467 or visit mojosrealcuban.com for more info. A second location is planned for 1830 S. Osprey Ave., Ste. 104 Sarasota.