If America's latest attempt at normalizing relations with Cuba has you thinking about booking a flight to Havana, you may consider first visiting Hollywood's El Floridita restaurant, where Cuban food and drink plus live music and dancing combine to create an intoxicating vibe on weekend nights and also on the enormously popular Salsa Monday.
Located for the last 28 years in an unassuming strip mall off of Fountain and Vine, El Floridita is the size of a large family room and has a very family feel among the staff and guests. But it's also a bona fide international hot spot, attracting such show-business luminaries as Prince, Mick Jagger, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez, as well as jet-setters from all over the globe and a devoted and diverse local clientele.
Among the fine crop of Cuban restaurants in L.A — including Versailles (four locations spread out over L.A.) and La Caridad in Echo Park (La Echo was once a home for a large enclave of Cuban emigres) — El Floridita's supper-club-style set-up is rather unique. Guests make the most of it by sipping mojitos, dining on a menu that features Cuban delectables like ropa vieja (slow-cooked shredded beef) and masitas de puerco fritas (pork fried in garlic to perfect crispness and garnished with onions), and grooving to the virtuosic salsa music of Johnny Polanco y su Conjunto Amistad.
El Floridita owner Armando Castro Jr. and his staff are continuing a family tradition begun in 1986 by Armando Sr., who named his new restaurant after the original El Floridita bar in old Havana, where the frozen daiquiri was born and Ernest Hemingway used to hold court.
Many of Castro's employees are veterans from the restaurant's early days, including bandleader Polanco, whose skills on the Cuban tres guitar, trombone, violin, vocals and percussion, as well as his experience as a Marine Corps drill instructor, make him uniquely suited to be a bandleader.
"Right now, L.A. is the salsa capitol of the world," says the Queens, New York-born Polanco, who has worked with salsa legends like Cachao and Johnny Pacheco and was recruited by Armando Castro Sr. to put together the original Salsa Monday band in 1993. "It reminds me of New York in the '70s," says Johnny. "You can hear a salsa band every night of the week."
At El Floridita, Johnny and great musicians like pianist Albeniz Quintana and flautist Art Webb create some of the hottest salsa in town, colorful and dynamic yet very easy on the ears.
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Your visit to a Salsa Monday might go like this: arrive 8 p.m. Order first mojito and some plantain chips with mojo, the signature Cuban sauce of garlic, olive oil and a dash of cilantro. Get the sweet, frosty rum treat and note the generous dollop of fresh, muddled mint. Order appetizer plate. Get up and take a quick salsa dance lesson from Ricky, instructor-in-residence on Monday nights. Sample a couple of the eight appetizers: tostones (fried banana pancakes) and fried yuca (Not yucca. It's the Cassava, a tuber), dipping them in a cool, slightly citrus-y watercress sauce.
Order second mojito. Band starts, groove is undeniable, as are sonero Luis Barbaron's melodic, in-Spanish exhortations from the bandstand. Order dinner, then dance for the next six selections — some rumba, some mambo and some charanga. Sit down as waiter Diego ladles black beans onto your rice from a beautiful ceramic tureen. Split two entrees with your buddy: churrasco, a barbecued butterfly-cut filet mignon grilled with Argentine chimichurri sauce, and Arroz Frito “El Floridita," a combination of Cuban and Chinese fried rice with shrimp, pork, ham and eggs. Realize that the people-watching is phenomenal. Order a third mojito.
"The ambience here is tremendous," says Johnny Polanco, who has the best view in the house of the stars of El Floridita — the dancers, who are elite and muy suave. "Salsa is a universal language right now, and Salsa Monday — food, drink, live music, dancing—- at El Floridita has become an institution."