First Taste: El Sapo Cuban Social Club

Downtown Silver Spring eatery serves up festive party scene

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Diners at El Sapo in downtown Silver Spring

Rick Chessen

There’s an hour wait for walk-ins on a recent Friday night at El Sapo, the new Cuban Social Club at 8455 Fenton St. in downtown Silver Spring, but no one seems to mind. That’s because even hanging out in the entryway at El Sapo feels like you stumbled into a party at some buzzy Havana hot spot.

Cuban-born chef/owner Raynold Mendizábal says he wants guests to “entrar bailando,” or “come in dancing.” That’s not difficult with live Latin music greeting you when you walk in the door and even less difficult once you’re sipping a minty mojito from the bar. You can feel the stress of trolling for parking in the nearby Wayne Avenue public garage melting away with every toe tap.

Ambience

Hanging string lights and cement floors give the rectangular space a festive backyard vibe. See-through garage doors along the restaurant’s front wall help bring the outdoors in—something that will be even more striking in warmer weather when the doors can open.

El Sapo chef-owner Raynold Mendizabal. Credit: Rick Chessen

Across the room, the bustling open kitchen helmed by Mendizábal sits under a colorful mural of anthropomorphic toads (sapos in Spanish) dancing the night away. Mendizábal explains that toads stand for the number 22 in Cuban culture and that he chose the theme because he signed the lease for El Sapo 22 years to the day that he set foot on American soil.

El Sapo rotates musicians and singers throughout the week. On the night we visited, Verny Varela provided low-key Latin rhythms from his home base near the host stand, becoming showier and more interactive as he wandered through the restaurant, singing karaoke duets with some customers and dancing with others.

Like its sister restaurant Urban Butcher nearby on Georgia Avenue, El Sapo seems to have a knack for being able to appeal to diverse groups of people and make them feel welcome. On the night we visited, the crowd did skew relatively young—most patrons looked to be in their late 20s to early 30s—perhaps partly because of the noise level. Mendizábal considers El Sapo to be Urban Butcher’s “other half” and scooters the four blocks between the restaurants several times each day to keep tabs on them both.

Food and drink

A mix-and-match menu lets diners create a meal from six ceviches, street-food snacks, appetizers, and entrees for one or two. Many of the dishes are upscale versions of traditional Cuban favorites such as ropa vieja, oxtails and vaca frita. That vaca frita, for example, involves beef brisket cooked overnight in a dry braise before being pan-seared at the last minute and served tableside (in our case by Mendizábal himself). The entrees come plated on large silver trays lined with banana leaves.

Be forewarned: Those upscale preparations often come with upscale price tags. The vaca frita and the oxtails for two both check in at $56; the ropa vieja for one is $24. And while steamed rice comes with entrees, black beans do not—unlike in many Cuban restaurants. If you want a side of beans, it costs an extra $5.

Some of the dishes we tried were worth every penny. The lovely tuna ceviche ($18) is freshly made and well-balanced, featuring sushi-grade tuna, jicama, ponzu and tamarind. The best entree of our visit combines goat “jerky” braised with honey and sofrito with a creamy yellow corn pudding ($26). The tender gaminess of the goat pairs beautifully with the corn’s soft sweetness. The vaca frita is good on its own but is much improved when swiped through the garlic, citrus, cilantro and chiles at the bottom of the pan.

 

Vaca frita with garlic, lemon, cumin, hot chiles and cebollitas. Credit: Rick Chessen

 

Puerco Asado ($22) has good flavor but is a bit dry. It’s no improvement over humbler versions of the dish at places like Mi Cuba in Columbia Heights.

The Cuban sandwich ($16) has all the right elements, but the bread makes it hard to eat. Instead of the usual pressed Cuban bread, the sandwich is served on a toasted roll that causes the fillings to squeeze out the sides when you take a bite.

Cocktails, wine and beer are available, including mojitos by the glass ($10) or pitcher ($40). Order a saoco cocktail ($12) and it comes in a fresh coconut branded with the El Sapo logo. Wine selections by the glass are limited to the house red, white, rose and sparkling.

Tuna ceviche with jicama ponzu-tamarindo. Credit: Rick Chessen

Service

The friendly T-shirt-clad staff knows the menus well enough to describe the dishes in detail and provide helpful recommendations. Our server steered us to the ceviche and the goat and I believe him when he says we need to come back for the tiger prawns and the oxtails. Even in a packed restaurant, food and drink orders are delivered efficiently and accurately.

Go or skip?

Go if you’re looking for a festive and energetic dining experience. Go if you’re interested in Cuban cuisine that pays homage to tradition while giving it a fresh and more modern spin.

Skip if you’re noise sensitive (particularly on weekends) or if you’re looking for homier Cuban cooking at lower prices.

 

Server Maurioio Quintanilla with a pitcher of mojitos. Credit: Rick Chessen

 

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