What’s Good Here? Mojitos Tropical Cafe in the Vista

Special to The StateSeptember 4, 2013 

Mojitos on Gervais St.

DEENA BOUKNIGHT

  • Mojitos 1004 Gervais St. in the Vista

    PRICES: The range is from around $8 to $13 for salads, sandwiches, and entrees. However, an a la carte menu offers items from $1 to $3.75.

    HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays.

    INFO: (803) 779-1717

What’s good here?

The Cubano. This is the classic Cuban sandwich, piled high with mojo (made with olive oil and herbs) slow marinated pulled roast pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, dill slices and creamy tropical mustard. The ample sandwich, served on Cuban bread – of course – is warmed and served with extra mojo for dipping. One of Mojitos Tropical Cafe’s founders Jane (“Mama”) Fishburne shared that a visiting Cuban professor to USC said the sandwich was better than anything he had experienced in his native Cuba.

The menu’s influence is Latin American – yet there is a focus on island spices. Fishburne explains to customers that spicy (heat) is different than spices (herbs and flavors). “We can certainly give you some heat,” she says, “but we want customers to experience Latin American spices.” There are other Cuban-style sandwiches – including vegetarian options. A French Dip sandwich has chopped sirloin, mojo onions and melted provolone and is served with a creamy chimichurri (a sauce made from olive oil, garlic, herbs, and other spices) as well as au jus for dipping.

Salads are unique. Sangria Salad has mixed greens and mandarin oranges with vegetables marinated in a red wine beet vinaigrette. The Mojo Salad has slow-roasted pulled chicken or pork, mandarin oranges, mojo onions, corn, queso fresco cheese, and avocado. The Spinach and Queso Salad has queso fresco cheese crumbles, fresh spinach, dried cranberries, almonds and seasonal berries and is served with a poppy seed dressing.

Menu entrees are Cilantro Lime-Roasted Chicken, Roasted Pulled Pork, Vegetarian Plate, Mojito’s Soft Tacos and the Empanada Plate.

What else?

There are a la carte items such as a unique tropical-style potato salad with crisp vegetables, spices, sour cream and mayonnaise; Caribbean slaw, plantains, seasoned rice, and black or red beans. Desserts are homemade daily by “Mama” and displayed in a glass case: Tres Leches (three milk) Cake, Lemon Cake, Chocolate Kahlua Cream Cake, Bread Pudding with Lemon Sauce, Coconut Cake, Pistachio Cake and Pina Colada Cheesecake. Besides the typical offerings of a full bar, there are 18 flavors of mojitos, a drink with rum, mint leaves, sugar, lime juice, and soda water as its base.

How did Mojitos Tropical Cafe get its start?

Fishburne has helped her son operate Salsa Cabana, a Salsa dance club, along Beltline Boulevard for 16 years. The establishment began to sell a few Cuban sandwiches and other items. Customers expressed an interest in a full-fledged Latin American restaurant. Fishburne’s grandmother was from Spain. Her ex-husband is from Puerto Rico. Fishburne’s son, Gabriel William, and daughter, Linette Wehunt, grew up with home-cooked Latin American influenced foods. With experience owning a business, and Wehunt’s education as a chef, the family decided to open Mojitos Tropical Cafe in the Vista to bring fresh flavors to Columbia.

The menu, explains Fishburne, is a melting pot of Latin American tastes – with an emphasis on island cuisine popular in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Everything is fresh and made to order. Seeing people enjoy their food is what makes “Mama” happy to come to work each day, she admits.

What is the ambiance?

Fishburne and her son developed the decor plan for the restaurant space housed in an old building along Gervais Street that was previously a nightclub. After a renovation process, the mother/son team decorated the interior in a colorful tropical theme. There is a mosaic-topped bar that runs the expanse of approximately half the restaurant space. Bar chairs in wicker and rattan line the bar, which is accented with artificial tropical plants and colorful, whimsical parrot accessories. An eclectic blend of tables and chairs allows seating for more than 40. A large screen projector offers soothing scenes of tropical islands. Televisions over the bar feature sports. Sidewalk tables and chairs seat about eight.

Who eats here?

Visitors from Latin American countries and tropical islands, as well as visitors to Columbia interested in trying something a little different. “We have had customers in here from all over the United States,” says Fishburne. College students, business people, couples on dates and families are customers of Mojitos. “We attract many different people from many different walks of life,” she says.

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