Mojitos in San Fernando is an outdoor cafe that offers a taste of Havana with particularly good, crispy empanadas, along with live music on the weekends. (Photo by Meryl Schindler)
They don’t have a liquor license the mojito in downtown San Fernando. So, depending on how doctrinaire you are about your cocktails, the wine-based mojitos they make (classic, mango, strawberry, coconut pineapple, and passion fruit) are either a smart decision… or a slightly alcoholic fruity drink.
But since the mojito has always been a rum-based fruit drink made from sugarcane juice, lime juice, sparkling water and mint, making it with wine is no less legitimate than non-alcoholic beer. Anyway, I read that one of the most popular mojitos in Havana these days is made using a rose-scented spirit. In Mexico, the mojito is made with tequila.
In Peru, mojitos are flavored with grapefruit, passion fruit, pears, raspberries, oranges and strawberries. I’ve seen mojitos made with gin and tonic water. One legend has it that the mojito was created by Sir Francis Drake, who used brandy. Hemingway drank a lot of them when he was in Havana. It was recently named the most popular cocktail in both the UK and France.
As far as I’m concerned, as long as it tastes good, it’s a good enough drink to drink while sitting on the patio of the San Fernando Library. This is where the Mojitos restaurant nestles, hidden from the traffic of Maclay Street, in a quiet enclave, next to a barbecue shop, opposite a Mexican restaurant.
I wasn’t here for the mojito. I was here for the pollo asado, a hearty marinated chicken dish that I never tire of. The Mojitos version doesn’t have as much garlic as the famous one at Versailles. But the meat — so sweet! — falls off the bone. It messed up my fingers and my shirt. I had no complaints.
It’s both crunchy and tender, topped with lots of chopped onions and sauce, served with surprisingly tasty white rice, black beans that have been boiled down to their essentials, and plantains that are half starch and half dessert.
But really, it all comes down to the chicken and the sauce. And yet it’s hard to resist the urge to taste more. The idea hovers in the air that maybe, just maybe, there’s a dish on the menu that’s even better. So, I brought along a good eater – a heavy fork – to help out.
We were there for weekday lunch when they were offering dinner meals at quite a discount. We started with an order of beef empanadas, which were crispy like fries, reminding me that the Cuban culinary mantra seems to be when in doubt, deep fry.
Crunchyness is everywhere—and especially in the thinly sliced plantain chips called mariquitas and the pork dish called masitas de puerco, “marinated in our homemade garlic sauce.”
While not specifically for lunch, we also turned down the Cubano Sandwich, which isn’t so much a sandwich as a pastry, packed with a crazy number of ingredients dominated by pork, pickles and cheese, served on crusty bread that reminds you of how good may be the bread (and what a debt we owe to Earl Sandwich and his card game).
I don’t understand how they stay so neat in Havana; I guess it’s all a dance.
We had ropa vieja — which translates to “old clothes” — and is a dish of shredded, stewed beef so tender that the tagline at a local barbecue house read, “You don’t need teeth to eat our beef.” And that applies perfectly here.
The pork—the Mofongos remind me how good the Cuban treatment of pork really is—includes lechon asado (roasted pork marinated in garlic mojo sauce) and the aforementioned macitas de puerco fritas, which somehow manage to be both tender and crunchy at the same time.
There’s also a section of the menu dedicated to the ultimate Puerto Rican dish called mofongo—a mash of green plantains and pork rinds surrounding a donut-sized hole filled with pork, chicken, beef, and seafood (pretty much everything). It is a culinary object of desire for Puerto Ricans. It’s the kind of dish that makes me promise myself I’ll live on salad the next day to make up for the damage.
At Mojitos, the ring is filled with a choice of shrimp, ropa vieja, lechon pork and rabo, which translates as oxtail. (There’s actually a restaurant in North Hollywood called Mofongos where options include both chicken stew and fried chicken, beef stew, steak and onions, roast pork, pulled pork, fried pork, shrimp, lobster, and more. You can add avocado, too , which seems almost healthy.)
For dessert there is a cake with three milks called Tres Leches and of course a very good flan based, like the mojito, on sugar.
Someday I hope to go to Havana and drink a mojito at Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio. It’s on my bucket list, which just keeps getting longer. But then, unlike my desire to one day visit the wreck of the Titanic, it is at least rational. As long as I don’t have too many.
Meryl Schindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance food critic. Email [email protected].
- rating: 2 stars
- address: 233 N. Maclay Ave
- Information: 818-639-0339; www.mojitossanfernando.com
- Kitchen: Cuban
- When: Lunch and dinner from Monday to Saturday
- details: Beer and wine; reservations are not required
- atmosphere: An outdoor cafe, in the very pleasant Library Square, offering a taste of Havana with particularly good, crispy empanadas, along with live music on weekends.
- Prices: About $25 per person
- In the menu: 6 entrees ($7.50-$23), 7 beef dishes ($17.50-$25), 2 pork dishes ($17.50), 4 mofongo dishes ($21-$25), 4 chicken dishes ($17.50-$22), 5 Seafood Entrees ($17.50-$23) , 5 Sandwiches/Burgers ($12.50-$13.50), 10 Lunch Specials ($13.75-$15.50), 5 Sides ($3.50-$5, 50)
- Credit cards: MC, V
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even outstanding. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (Good place to eat. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but you’re not stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly, it’s not worth writing about.