Good Mojo: New Cuban restaurant features authentic comida

Mojo Cuban Kitchen offers 10 small plates, including tostones ($6), which are fried green plantains topped with guacamole. (Jackie Tran/Contributor)

By Valerie Vinyard

Cuban food is back in Tucson.

Mojo Cuban Kitchen and Rum Bar opened October 30 on Grant Road just east of Campbell Avenue in the former Viva el Caribe. 

“I love Cuban food, and Tucson needed a Cuban restaurant,” says Nick Schaffer, owner and a Chicago native who has lived in Tucson since 2006. 

Schaffer and his wife, Alison, had owned Jimmy John’s franchises since 2003. After they sold the last of their stores last year, Schaffer says it was time to branch out.

“We were excited to do something more creative,” says Schaffer, 46. 

They relied on their experience in developing teams to gather a solid group of chefs, servers and bartenders. Their executive chef, Janet Balderas, previously was the executive chef at Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. And Mojo’s sous chef, Patricia Espinosa, hails from Cuba. 

“Mojo,” which is pronounced “mo-ho” and means “Caribbean garlic sauce” in Spanish, is a citrus and garlic marinade and dipping sauce that is the foundation of many traditional Cuban dishes.

“It’s authentic Cuban food in an accessible contemporary environment that’s inviting to everyone,” Schaffer says of the food. “It was all about creating a great concept that people love.”

To help create that concept, the Schaffers took the general manager, chef and sous chef to Miami for a Cuban culinary tour. Schaffer has hired about 30 employees to work at Mojo.

“We did our homework,” he says. 

While in Miami, the team sampled dishes from well-known Cuban restaurants.

Don’t expect any spicy foods at Mojo. Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between Mexican and Cuban cuisine is the lack of heat in Cuban foods.

Newcomers to Cuban food won’t go wrong ordering the Taste of Havana ($22). The sampler plate comes with juicy ropa vieja, succulent Mojo chicken and lechon asado, Cuban roast pork.

The pork is marinated in a homemade mojo marinade overnight and then roasted low and slow until it’s fall-apart tender. In fact, many of Mojo’s meats are marinated and slow roasted for up to 24 hours. 

The menu includes small plates ($5-$16), sandwiches ($12-$14), salads ($10-$11), entrees ($14-$22), and desserts ($3.50-$6). Cuban comfort dishes include ropa vieja, empanadas, fried yuca, mojo chicken and the Cubano sandwich.

Schaffer says the current bestsellers are the Cuban sandwich or the Taste of Havana.

“It’s a really good value,” Schaffer says of the sandwich, having worked with La Estrella Bakery to create a Cuban bread recipe. “It’s a lot of food.”

FORS Architecture and Interiors transformed the space into an inviting, comfortable and bright restaurant. People order at the counter and get a number to put on their table. The food is delivered by friendly servers.

The 3,000-square-foot restaurant seats 80 people inside and 20 outside on the patio. There’s an indoor-outdoor full bar that features a variety of rums. Customers can choose three selections each for a Bronze Rum Flight ($20), Silver ($40) or the top-shelf Gold Flight ($100), which also comes with a cigar.

Other drinks include wines ($8-$10 per glass; $38-$40 per bottle), six draft beers ($6), seven bottled or canned beers ($5), sangria ($12 a glass; $45 a pitcher), and seven classic Cuban cocktails ($8-$12). Daiquiris, which originated in Cuba, come chilled or frozen ($11) and are available in a variety of flavors, including coconut, pineapple, lime and cherry.

There’s a walk-up window, which is convenient when ordering for pickup or when grabbing a Cuban coffee ($3) and pastelito for breakfast.

“We’re making everything in-house, including all the pastries,” Schaffer says. “It’s a lot of prep.”

Luckily, there’s always a supply of Cuban coffee made by Decibel Coffee Works, a local roaster, to keep him alert.

Mojo Cuban Kitchen and Rum Bar

1929 E. Grant Road, Tucson

520-690-6921, mojocuban.com

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

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