Walking the half block from the Cordell Avenue parking garage to Cubano’s restaurant (known formally as Cubano’s Authentic Cuban Cuisine and Beyond) in late February, it is so cold I have to pull my wool cap down over my ears. To take the chill off, I opt for a comfort food dinner—a casserole of perfectly cooked rice and seafood (whole shrimp, squid rings, mussels, octopus morsels and clams in shells popped wide open) commingling with piping hot seafood broth, garlic, onions, bright green peas, and strips of red and green bell pepper. A slice of country bread perched on the side of the stainless-steel pot comes in handy to mop up every remaining drop of the dish, which has just embraced me like a long-lost friend’s hug.
It’s a hug I may have to forgo for quite some time. As I write this review, Cubano’s is closed, per Gov. Larry Hogan, who in response to coronavirus ordered Maryland’s restaurants to stop dine-in eating on March 16, barely six weeks after the Bethesda location debuted. (The other Maryland location of Cubano’s, a Silver Spring mainstay, opened in 2001 and as of this printing was offering carryout; a Fort Lauderdale location opened last year.)
Co-owner Adolfo Mendez, who is Cuban-born but grew up in Venezuela, supports the closures. “I have been in contact with my family in Italy, Spain and France and they have opened my eyes,” he says. He advocates a total shutdown of weeks, or perhaps months, to make the community safe and virus-free. Ironically, before he went into the restaurant business, Mendez was a pharmacist. “I used to sell drugs; now I sell food and drinks,” he says.
On my visits to the Bethesda restaurant, Mendez and co-owner José Manuel Mendez, one of Adolfo’s nephews, greet guests warmly at the door, then chat with them throughout the night, treating first-timers as regulars and the dining room as their living room. “The whole family was in on the design,” Adolfo says. “José Manuel got the long wood tiles for the floors. His wife, Carolina, put up all the family photographs on the walls.” Faux ferns hang from the low ceilings. Jungle print wallpaper accents a front wall. Spanish tiles and a stunning contact paper mural of Cuban singer Celia Cruz make the eight-seat bar a focal point.