It’s a Saturday evening at El Sapo Cuban Social Club in downtown Silver Spring, and Havana-born chef and owner Raynold Mendizábal is working the door. He’s wearing an immaculate white short-sleeve chef’s coat, a cotton towel tied bandana-style around his neck, and mod glasses with lime-green half frames. The restaurant’s glass garage doors are open, and lush notes from musician Manuel Pelayo’s saxophone commingle with the dusk’s pleasant spring breeze. The place vibrates with positive energy, from the cooks in the open kitchen to the waitstaff, bartenders and bussers.
At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Mendizábal, 48, is an imposing figure. He loves manning the host stand and does it with the confidence of proprietorship. Thanks to favorable word-of-mouth and rave reviews—El Sapo recently earned the fifth spot on Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s list of the 10 best new restaurants—the 100-seat establishment is fully booked. Mendizábal relishes the challenge of accommodating walk-ins throughout the night, calculating when guests will leave and rearranging parties on the floor plan he keeps on his iPad. That he does this with rigorous precision is not surprising, considering that he was an academic who specialized in mathematics and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics before he left Cuba on a homemade raft in 1994.
In between seating guests and bussing, wiping and resetting tables, he and general manager Judita D’Oliveira, whom he has known for 19 years, occasionally pick up Pelayo’s beat, shaking maracas, clacking wooden claves and dancing. “My culture is loud. We make a lot of music. We are vibrant and noisy. We have been through rough times in my country,” Mendizábal says. “I want El Sapo to be this flamboyant laugh with a lot of Cuban flavor.”
He’s gregarious, charming and welcoming, hugging return guests and regulars from Urban Butcher, the meat-centric downtown Silver Spring restaurant he opened in 2013. But he gives as good as he gets. Guests who simply put two fingers in his face and declare, “Table for two!” are met with a discomfiting, sarcastic “Good evening! How are you tonight?” and a tally mark notation on his clipboard, where he tracks—for no particular reason—the number of people who are rude. (By 7:30, there are six marks.) Parents who don’t control unruly children receive a withering glance. His philosophy? “People have gotten sitters to come here and have a nice time. This isn’t Chuck E. Cheese.”
Guests arrive generally predisposed to enjoying themselves, and most are ebullient when they leave, especially those with whom Mendizábal and D’Oliveira have shared on-the-house rum shots laced with ginger. On the way out of El Sapo (which means “the toad” in Spanish), many comply with the cheeky sign on the conga drum at the door: “Bang me for good luck.” People who earned tally marks earlier leave thanking Mendizábal and lavishing praise on his Cuban fare.
While other chefs might go out drinking or wolf down a sandwich while hitting the DVR to unwind after a 12- to 16-hour workday, Mendizábal partakes in math. He doesn’t have a television and isn’t on social media. He has never smoked or done drugs, and although he’s a casual drinker who loves wine, he says the last time he was drunk was when he was 16. In his two-bedroom apartment a block from Urban Butcher, he’s turned an entire living room wall into a dry-erase board. Mathematical equations in a variety of colors are scrawled all over it. Sheets of 81/2-by-11-inch paper filled with tangential calculations are taped here and there like Post-it notes.
During an interview in his apartment one afternoon in April, I ask Mendizábal what the equations represent. “I’m working on spin bundles on the symplectic,” he says. My eyes glaze over as he starts explaining—“…distance…elementary particles…symmetry…”—and then he catches himself. “It is too technical; let’s leave it at that. You can’t talk to people about math. It’s a language.”
On the floor in front of the wall are three oxygen tanks; Mendizábal is an advanced scuba diver and adrenaline craver. “My last trip was to North Carolina,” he says. “There are a lot of sunken ships there. I like diving in the wrecks or the caves in Mexico. I love danger. I wouldn’t dive on a reef in the Bahamas—there’s no challenge in that. If there’s not the possibility of death somehow, the dive is not interesting at all. When you are in 500 feet and deep in the belly of a ship, you’re on your own down there. There’s no light, it’s just you and your partner, your instrument and your wit.”
Mendizábal serves lunch in his open-concept kitchen, proffering a plate of grape tomatoes, warm country bread and Spanish olive oil to go with slices cut from a whole country ham, scarfing down a slice for every one he offers. “This is how I eat at home all the time. I’m happy with just this. Isn’t this ham amazing?” he asks. It is. He pours two glasses of Blanc Fumé de Pouilly. “Let’s bring [the late winemaker] Didier Dagueneau into the conversation because I think you will like his company. This gentleman was a true revolutionary. He makes wine in Pouilly-Fumé [France], but he does it different from the classification so he can’t call it Pouilly-Fumé.” Mendizábal likes people who do things their own way.
The ham will soon be on a new menu at Urban Butcher, which recently underwent a renovation. “We aged these hams for three years, smoking them for a week every winter. They’re made from Ossabaw Island pigs [that] descend from ancient Iberico [Spanish] pigs. They are castaway survivors of Spanish shipwrecks left undisturbed on this island off Georgia for hundreds of years. The scarcities and vicissitudes of the island made them evolve in their own ecosystem and they created this creamy, marbly fat,” he says. (According to The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit organization devoted to the preservation of rare breeds, the pigs now known as Ossabaws were brought to what is now Georgia in the 1500s by Spanish explorers, but more likely descend from Canary Island pigs.)