I’ve always found it fun to discover a new restaurant, especially when that restaurant is a Cuban restaurant. There are only a handful in the Washington, D.C. area compared to the number of Cuban restaurants in Miami or Union City, NJ, or even the number of Chinese restaurants in most American cities. The good thing is because they are so few, the ones that are open for business are amazing.
One of the newest entries in the area, Colada Shop, opened its first location in Sterling, Va., in 2016 and its D.C. location in early 2017. While the café and bar has received rave reviews, including a coveted spot in Washingtonian’s 2017 Cheap Eats list, I have been slow to check out the restaurant closest to me in D.C. because the menu seemed limited to pastelitos (pastries), sandwiches, empanadas, croquetas, coffee and cocktails, in the evening. The D.C. location looked bright but small from the outside and I was concerned that its popularity would shut me out of a seat at one of their tables. I am also used to frequenting Cuban restaurants that have plato fuertes—full size entrées. I seldom find myself just wanting a sandwich for dinner. I typically want a full Cuban meal, as big and as flavorful as its people.
However, when I heard that Maria—my friend, colleague and fellow Cuban sister—was coming to town, I thought I had found the right occasion to try out the Colada Shop. If you follow my blog regularly, you may recall that Maria gave me a lesson on making flan a few months ago. Maria arrived in the states from Cuba at age six and her family settled in the Kansas City area shortly thereafter. While Kansas City is becoming more diverse, my guess is that finding good Cuban food is still hard to find—unless you go to Maria’s house.
The minute we stepped out of our Uber ride, we had a good feeling about the shop. The bright blue exterior just exudes happiness. It reminds me of a clear blue sky above the Caribbean. Inside, the storefront was just as inviting. The concise menu was on the wall but the pastelitos and bags of plantain chips hinted at what would be in store for us.
We each ordered sandwiches. Maria ordered the Colada Shop Cuban which is basically their Cuban sandwich made of ham, slow roasted pork, swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, cilantro aioli and Cuban bread. I went with the Media Noche which is essentially the same sandwich that Maria ordered, except on a sweet roll. (Since I despise cilantro, I asked the server to hold the cilantro aioli.)
We took our lunch in the cozy little room at the rear of the shop, which was meant to resemble the faded beauty of the Spanish architecture that prevails across the island, but accented with contemporary furnishings. I am not sure who decorated the restaurant, but if I ever get a place of my own again, I’d want them to decorate it.
Over our lunch, we chatted over Maria’s research into her ancestry, my plans to build content for the blog and her tips for making croquetas (use ground roasted pork, which is drier than ham which retains water and could make the croquetas soggy). I especially enjoy talking to Maria about Cuban cooking. My father, who loved cooking as much as I do, was reluctant to share his memories of Cuban cuisine, but for a handful of items—guava and cream cheese pastelitos, Cuban sandwiches and empanadas. Luckily, I have Maria who is committed to educating me on the gaps in my knowledge of Cuban food.
As we were leaving, we stopped by the counter again, this time to get some of the coffee that the Cubans are so well-known for. I am not a huge fan of café Cubano, a concoction of espresso and syrupy sugar which I find to be a cloyingly sweet, rich caffeinated beverage. However, the barista—who I later discovered was Mario Monte, partner and food and beverage director for the Colada Shop—honored my request for half the sugar in my drink. I had ordered the Colada, a variation of the café Cubano and the namesake of the cafe. While the Colada, made of 4 shots of expresso and sugar, came in the traditional expresso cup, Mario handed me three cups the size of mini-moo containers along with my Colada. A little confused, I asked what were the little cups for. Mario and Maria both laughed at me, with Mario encouraging her to explain the tradition of the Colada. Unbeknownst to me, the Colada is a social coffee drink that is commonly shared among friends and colleagues and drank like you would a shot of alcohol, hence the tiny cups, also known as cafecito cups. Maria even offered that her niece drunk Coladas with her fellow nursing students in Miami nearly every afternoon.
What a lovely tradition, and one that makes perfect sense. I often make a coffee run in the afternoon with my friend and colleague Kristin for as much as the need to reenergize as simply an opportunity to catch up on how our day is going. Instead of starting on my afternoon coffee before I got back to the office, I saved my Colada to share with my friends at the office. The only difference from my typical coffee run is that we offered a toast before we took a shot of our coffee. ¡Salud!