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Colada Shop Imagines What Cuban Food Was Like Before the Revolution

These days, it’s alarmingly easy to forget that there is more to Washington, DC than the nonstop barrage of stubborn partisan politics; that the city is also home to a vibrant food scene where people are celebrating some of the best things life has to offer. In the case of Colada Shop, one of DC’s newest Cuban spots, that includes sandwiches, cocktails, coffee, and plates of things fried perfectly golden brown.

Colada Shop is quite literally a bright spot in the city’s Logan Circle neighborhood. The charming sky blue and deep pink facade is hard to miss, as are the bold red tables clustered in front of its clean white awning. Even on a late June afternoon, the restaurant seems perpetually packed, and for good reason: it’s a place you could stay at all day. Colada Shop, which has another outpost in Sterling, Virginia, is billed as a sandwich-cum-coffee shop, but it also has a hearty breakfast menu and no less than eight strong cocktails at any given time.

Mario Monte, Colada Shop’s food and beverage director, says that when he dreams up menu items, he likes to think about what would have happened with Cuban food naturally had there not been a revolution, an era where food was defined by rations and the nationalization of farm land. “The food that Americans most associate with Cuba are foods from the '50s, which is when the revolution took place,” says Monte. “The rest of the Caribbean evolved, but Cuba got stuck in time.”

Monte’s approach can most clearly be seen on the restaurant’s extensive coffee menu. There are many classic drinks like the café Cubano -- an espresso shot topped with a whipped sugar crema -- and the namesake colada, four shots of sweetened espresso meant to be shared. But it’s where Monte, who was born in Miami to a Cuban father and Italian mother, combines coffee with ingredients from behind the bar that things get really interesting. El Juanito, a drink made with cold brew, tamarind, lime, and tonic is fruity, complex, and refreshing, while the Centinela, made with coffee, ginger beer, and angostura bitters, is earthy and unexpected. “I like using ingredients and spices already found in Cuba and thinking, ‘What else would they have done with coffee had they had these options, had the people been given the creative freedom to do things with what's already there?’” he says.

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Monte’s intention can be found throughout the menu in subtle ways too. He is especially proud of Colada Shop’s pastelitos -- small, rectangular Cuban pastries filled with everything from tangy guava and cheese to savory picadillo-style beef. They're essentially the elegant versions of Pillsbury Toaster Strudels. “They are technically a breakfast item, but at practically any moment we are surrounded by pastelitos,” says Monte with a laugh. “So when we’re sad, when we’re happy, when we’re celebrating, there’s always a tray of pastelitos at a party.” The dish is typically made with a puff pastry that is layered with lard since butter is too expensive in Cuba. Monte’s recipe involves puff pastry slicked with vegetable oil, which he says results in an extra crispy crust. He brushes each pastry with simple syrup at the end to give it a good sheen.

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Try as I might, great coffee drinks and pastelitos are not quite enough to sustain an adult human for a full day. Thankfully, Monte is masterful when it comes to sandwiches too. The classic Cuban sandwich features ham, slow-roasted pork, punchy mustard, sharp house-made pickles, and a swipe of herbaceous cilantro aioli. But most importantly, the sandwich, which spends a few minutes warming up in a panini press, is held together by a layer of melted Swiss cheese. “I’ve always had a pet peeve about Cuban sandwiches, and it is that cheese is never actually melted,” says Monte. “So my mission is for every person that orders a Cuban, that the cheese is totally melted.”

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This is accomplished even in the restaurant’s veggie Cuban, possibly one of the best meat-free sandwiches I’ve ever had. Monte layers a generous amount of portobello mushrooms -- marinated in a garlic, citrus, and olive oil sauce known as mojo -- with tender roasted cauliflower, and the same cilantro aioli, pickles, and melted Swiss for a sandwich that packs enough of a savory punch to make the knees of even the most carnivorous eaters buckle.

There was no doubt that I was full after navigating my way through the generously portioned sandwiches, but I was unable to stop myself from polishing off an order of Colada Shop’s spinach and cheese empanadas, each hot pocket brimming with bubbly cheese and tender greens. The crust, spotlessly grease-free, was practically empyrean and wholly addictive. By the time I looked up from finishing my spread, the crowd had rotated out for an entirely new set of customers. I stared at them with envy, jealous that they were just starting their meals.

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Khushbu Shah is the Senior Food Features Editor at Thrillist and recommends a round of spinach and cheese empanadas followed by a veggie Cuban. Follow her travels to the best restaurants around the country @khushandoj.