Bongos Cuban Cafe

My family and I were in Orlando last week.  (Here’s a little slideshow if you’re interested in some pics!) We had a lot on our itinerary, but took a day to relax at our resort and then spent the evening strolling Downtown Disney.  That’s when we decided to try Bongos Cuban Cafe for dinner.

Bongos is owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and was opened in Downtown Disney in 1997.  There are now 4 locations according to their website.  It was a really fun place to eat!  Everyone in our party mentioned how fun the atmosphere was.  The building looks like it’s been plunked down into Orlando straight from Havana.  The warm breeze blowing gently through our crowd, the lively music pumping from the speakers, the friendly latino waitstaff (who we could only understand half the time!) – it all added to a great evening.

Before I go on with the pictures and food, I’ll apologize for the photo quality.  It was night, we were outside, and the lighting was dim.  It was enough to eat and visit by, but not quite enough for pictures.  I annoyed our table (and probably the others around us) by using flash a few times, and just decided to use what I could.  Also, forgive me for not knowing the exact names of our dishes.  I tried to find them on their website, but came up short.  Plus, other than our appetizer, everything we ordered was on special, so it wouldn’t have been on the menu anyway!

We started with an appetizer combo. It was a huge plate full of little bites of cuban yummies.  We passed it around the table, and everyone really seemed to enjoy it.  No pictures of this one (sorry!), but my personal favorite was the tamale. So good!  Moist and corn-y (is that a word?) and delicious.

Matt ordered the surf and turf special.  It came with shrimp skewers, skirt steak, sweet fried plantains and yellow rice.  According to Matt, everything was “okay.”  The steak was okay.  It was a thin steak, so it’s hard to cook to medium the way he likes.  It wasn’t tough or anything, but he just didn’t love it.  The shrimp seemed over-cooked.  The sweet friend plantains were good, but a little over-sweet.  He could only eat one!  The rice was good, a little on the dry side.  Matt says he wasn’t expecting much from rice, so apparently it didn’t faze him much.

I ordered the seafood platter (above).  It was shrimp, mussels, lobster, scallops and a mess of assorted seafood all cooked in a delicious brothy-stewy sauce.  It was served with fried plantains (not sweet) and white rice.

Let me start with the good: The food looked beautiful! I mean, look at all that seafood!  The brothy sauce was my favorite part of the meal.  It was rich without being too thick and creamy.  It had a great balance of spice and acidity, and was the perfect compliment to a bunch of seafood.  The plantains were good too.  This was my first time trying them, and I was pleased with what showed up on my plate.  I expect more from rice than my husband does, and this rice was really well-cooked.  It was the perfect mix of moist and dry and sticky and flavorful.  I can never get my rice to act like this at home!

Now for the bad: the seafood was really not great at all! I was so disappointed.  I know Orlando is in the middle of Florida, but it’s still not that far from the ocean. Why couldn’t they get some good seafood?  The shrimp was very overcooked – rubbery and dry.  I hate that! Shrimp can be so good.  The lobster was good, but there was barely any meat on this tail.  Everything was tough and overcooked.  I was really bummed.  I ended up eating the broth with spoonfuls of rice instead of the seafood.  I did eat all the plantains too.

Speaking of plantains: I am really impressed at the versatility of these little guys!  Pounded out and fried, they were a yummy, crunchy, savory side.  They were almost like potatoes here, but the texture was a little tougher than if you had fried potatoes.  Matt’s sweet fried plantains would have been a great dessert!  They were so tender and sweet.  It was really nice.   The only thing that bugged me about the plantains is what the waiter called them!  He kept calling them bananas.  I was slightly offended that he would call them bananas, as if no one would have known what they were.  He should have called them plantains, and if anyone asked what they were, he could have said something like, “They look like bananas, but are tougher and less sweet.” I don’t know. It just bugged me a bit that the waiter was totally misrepresenting what they were serving.  If I hadn’t known what plantains were, heard him say bananas were coming, and then ate what I ate, I would have been really put off!

Okay – on with the meal!  My brother got a bloody mary (my favorite!) that I didn’t get a picture of, but I did sneak a few sips of it.  Wow! That thing was spicy!  It was a great bloody mary – lots of kick with some zing from limes (my favorite addition to a bloody mary).  Plus, he didn’t want the olive, so BONUS for me!

After writing all of that, you would think I would have a poor overall review for this place.  You would be wrong!  I really enjoyed my meal here, even though our meals were disappointing.  No one else in my family had bad things to say about their food, so it’s quite possible (very probable) that we are food snobs who have unattainable expectations for our meals.  I would love to go back and try some other things from the menu sometime.  The atmosphere was just phenomenal, and we had a really great time.  If you ever find yourself in Orlando, hop over to Bongos and give it a shot.  Just avoid the seafood maybe…

Katie’s Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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