Photo of Mario Monte by Brian Oh
Photo of Mario Monte by Brian Oh

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The countdown is on for the opening of the D.C. location of Colada Shop (1405 T St. NW). Come Feb. 1, diners will be pairing rum drinks with guava pastelitos, chicken croquetas, Cuban sandwiches, and flan. Chef Mario Monte, whose résumé includes a stop at The Bazaar by José Andrés, boastsa background uniquely positioning him to bring the District a taste of Cuban food with subtle twists inspired by his heritage.

Monte, while born in Miami, grew up primarily in Venezuela with an Italian mother and Cuban father. The cuisine in the South American country is influenced heavily by indigenous ingredients like quinoa, corn, and cilantro. For example, an Andean dish called pisca Andina was Monte’s favorite food growing up. “It’s like an arepa but in cilantro broth with a poached egg that you chop up and it becomes like an egg stew,” he explains. “To this day when I crave home, I call my mom and tell her I’m making a pisca and go through the steps with her.”

Monte explains the only facet of Cuban culture he was exposed to before moving to Miami as a teenager was the coffee (which will be a major focus at Colada Shop). “I grew up always trying to make the perfect cup of Cuban coffee for father or grandfather,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Hey Mario, make some coffee for the men.’ That was my thing.” Flashing forward, Monte says his father thinks it’s funny that he’s found success cooking Cuban food. “It’s been a little more of a growing experience to get to know my father as an adult.”

Monte has been fortunate to travel extensively but never to Cuba, so he’s had to find other ways to get in touch with the cuisine leading up to the Colada Shop launch. “Most of my father’s family is made up of exiled Cubans,” he explains. “What I know about Cuban food is what I had learned from my grandmother and what my aunts cooked. The recipes that I have are actually recipes from the ’40s and ’50s.”

Some dishes should feel like they were pulled out of a time capsule because Monte wants customers to enjoy them precisely how they were made in Cuba. “I stick to what I know is available to them as an island,” he says. “I think with Cubans, it’s a very unique culture that was completely stopped.”

With other items he takes some liberties, like (gasp) the Cuban sandwich. He uses pork butt that’s marinated for two days with a family mojo recipe containing bay leaves, garlic, onions, apple cider vinegar, orange, and lime juice. He slow roasts it for about ten hours, waits until it’s chilled, and slices it on a deli slicer. This technique causes the pork to release its juices once the Cubano hits the sandwich press. “In Miami, they do a hot quick roast on pork loin and slice it really thin,” Monte says. “I don’t have the challenges that a lot of restaurants in Miami do as far as price pointmaking sure you keep everything super cheap.”

Further gussying up his Cuban sandwich, Monte adds a spreadable hat tip to Venezuela in the form of cilantro aioli that Venezuelans put on just about everything. He says the acidity adds balance.

Monte’s family members came for a visit after the Sterling, Virginia location of Colada Shop opened and were impressed. “For me it was a big thing because they eat it every day,” he says. Others find Monte’s food to be nostalgic too. “I love getting Cubans who come here and they’re like ‘wow, you brought a piece of home and that’s the biggest thing.’” They immediately ask where he’s from. “I feel guilty saying I’m not completely Cuban, but in a way I’m paying homage to my culture that I don’t know entirely because I’ve never visited.”