At long last, we finally made it to the Downtown Disney hotspot that is Bongos Cuban Cafe!
I’ll admit, I’d been putting off my visit to this restaurant. I hadn’t heard great reviews, and I wasn’t sure I’d like the food. But I’m SUCH a giant loser — what have I been waiting for?!?
I had a great time, I had awesome food…and it’s finally time to peek inside and find out what the Big Pineapple has to offer!
With architecture billed as “Old Havana” in style, this breezy, open restaurant certainly puts you in the mood for a tropical drink and a conga line. 😉 When we visited just before St. Patrick’s Day, Downtown Disney was alive with the excitement of a young, vibrant crowd, ready to get their dance on! The traditional Cuban dance music pouring out from the restaurant beckons you to come take a closer look and listen, and was perfect for a warm, breezy Florida evening.
Originally, our Advanced Dining Reservation was scheduled for much later than our 7:30 meet up time. When we checked in at the podium, though, we had no trouble getting a seat immediately. As a newcomer to Cuban food, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the fun setting hinted of some adventurous eating ahead!
One of THE most amazing features of Bongos is the wide open feel of the place. Seating is available both inside and outside, giving the restaurant an authentic Cuban or Miami vibe. After all, these are places where people “live outside,” and restaurants in these locations really reflect that.
To help with the heat, both inside and out, we noticed high ceilings and lots of ceiling fans. It really lends to the impression of cool, airy spaces.
The upstairs veranda also provides a pleasant view of surrounding hotels, the Characters in Flight balloon, and the lake beyond. VERY cool view, eh??
While the walls inside are painted to give an old world, weathered feel (and the stone no doubt lends to a sense of coolness on a sweltering Florida summer day), there are plenty of colorful splashes to engage the eye, from the conga drum bar stools to the free floating mobiles above.
We especially loved the quotes in Spanish stenciled around the inside of the rounded walls in one of the seating areas. Pretty cool!
Now when I say this place is huge, I mean HUGE! There are tables everywhere, and you should seriously drop some breadcrumbs on your way to bathroom to make sure you get back to the right place when you’re done!!
With seating upstairs, downstairs, indoors, outdoors…there are plenty of options.
The downside to the soaring ceilings, wide open spaces, and festive music: it does make for difficult conversation.
Since we wanted to chat while we were enjoying our food, my dinner partner and I were happy when the hostess led us to this cozy and somewhat quieter alcove, just beyond the second bar area.
Once you figure out all of the seating areas, it’s time to look floor to ceiling at the decor! Throughout the space, walls were adorned with different portraiture, from folk art and mosaics, to this glossy, full-size photograph of the restaurant’s owner, singer Gloria Estefan.
But enough about the walls, tables, and chairs. On to the food!
The menu at Bongos is primarily Cuban, which is a fusion of Spanish and African cuisine, with a dash of Caribbean influence thrown in for good measure. As a result, dishes are flavorful without being overly spicy.
You won’t find the heat in Cuban food that you expect from some Latino cuisine. Rather, there’s an emphasis on garlic, citrus juices, onions, and herbs. It was totally new to me, but luckily my dining partner is a food guru, so she walked me through it!
But before we could get started with bites we knew tropical drinks were in order! Big ones!
Everyone knows that when you’re in a Cuban restaurant, you MUST try the mojito; and luckily, my friend loves them! She decided to try the coconut version, made with Bacardi Coconut Rum and real coconut juice.
It was pronounced to be delicious and pleasantly strong, with the delicate coconut flavors perfectly complimenting the mint.
Since I’m not a big fan of mint, I chose the Havanna Punch, which featured Limon Rum, melon liqueur, and a trio of juices. Our attentive server saw that I was searching for pineapple on the menu, and made sure that my glass was garnished nicely with some thick, juicy slices.
As you can see, the Havanna Punch was enormous! It came with a souvenir glass. I showed my receipt at the gift shop and am now the proud owner of this enormous goblet.
And, I’ll admit, I only drank half of this giantness, so I can’t even really tell you how strong it was. But I will say that it was delicious!
Looking over the gigantic menu took a bit of time, and we asked our server for his suggestions. We quickly settled on the appetizer platter as it offered a TON of variety! The Bongo Combo claims to feed two people, but there was easily enough food for three or four to share and still get a taste of everything.
The yuca cups, shown in front, were the most unique item on the platter. Made of yuca, a starchy, potato-like vegetable, the cups are fried to crisp-tender perfection and stuffed with baby shrimp and picadillo beef filling. They were nice and fresh.
The fried stuffed potatoes featured a perfectly crisp outer layer of potato, and inside held a flavorful picadillo beef filling surrounded by more fluffy potato.
The ham croquettes were a delicious combination of creamy cheese and salty minced ham. Personally, I thought the texture was a bit mushy, so I didn’t finish my full allotment here.
The tamale featured a traditional shredded pork filling encased in a moist, cornbread-like outer layer, and was served unwrapped, sitting on a bed of corn husk. All of this was topped with marinated tangy onions that made other appearances throughout the meal.
This was likely my least favorite item on the platter, as it felt pretty much like wet cornbread in my mouth and I couldn’t quite get past that. I’m pretty sure that’s a reaction based on my lack of experience with this type of food and NOT with the taste or flavor, however.
The marinated fried pork bites were a stand out, though! The mojo seasoning, made of sour orange juice, garlic, and spices, really shone through in the deep flavor and tenderness of the meat. This one definitely had a kick, but of flavor — not spice. It’s not what you expect, but it’s quite good!
We were pretty much stuffed after this (you can imagine!), but we had to make room for entrees!
First up: the Lechon Asado, or slow roasted pork leg prepared with mojo and served with fried sweet plantains and moro rice. The slightly sauteed, marinated onions added a tangy sour note to the pork, which contrasted nicely with the deep, slow roasted, succulence of the dish. My friend really enjoyed the moro rice as well, which consisted of rice cooked with black beans and ample amounts of flavorful pork and seasonings.
I chose the Vaca Frita de Pollo, or shredded chicken, on our server’s recommendation. It arrived at our table sizzling on a cast iron skillet.
I wasn’t really sure how good “shredded chicken” could be, but Oh my Gracious — I’m still thinking about that stuff!! It was well seasoned without being spicy — a super-flavorful, savory dish — and was not at all dry, which I often expect shredded chicken to be. Amazing. I can’t wait to have more!
The chicken came with the same sweet plantains, and was accompanied by steamed white rice. Did I need the side dishes? No. I just wanted more of that chicken!! 😉
OK, sports fans, time for dessert! I don’t leave you hanging very often when it comes to this course, do I? 😉
We asked for a menu (which finally came…after the server tried to give us our check first…??), and decided on a couple of traditional options.
The tres leches cake was exactly as you would expect it to be: mild, rather plain cake, soaked in a milk mixture, and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. If you like the traditional approach to this dessert, you’ll get exactly what you expect.
Our other choice was rice pudding (on the recommendation of our server). While the taste was sweet and mild, it was not the normal pudding consistency. It was looser and more liquidy than other rice puddings I’ve tasted, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing! Somehow, this made me like it even more than I expected.
It was the kind of dessert that, after the first bite, you think “OK, that’s all right, but I don’t need too much more of it,” and then you proceed to eat spoonful after spoonful. I wonder if the Havana Punch was doing the talking there… 😉
So, my preconceptions have been foiled again! I was pleasantly surprised by Bongos Cuban Cafe! The food was fresh and varied, the portions were hefty, and we had no trouble being seated, even on a busy night at Downtown Disney. While our location, tucked away in a cozy booth near the second bar, didn’t afford terrific people-watching, it provided us with a great place to talk and chat after a busy day in the parks.
The food conveys characteristic Cuban flavors, and the variety of dishes available made it easy for us to sample lots of different tastes.
While some of the prices on the menu might be a little steep for traditional, homestyle Cuban delicacies, the combination of interesting food, plus the fact that we were seated so quickly and easily, makes Bongos Cuban Cafe a good choice for anyone looking for a last minute ADR, or for a meal that’s off the beaten path.
Can’t wait to go back and have more of that chicken!!
Have you eaten at Bongos Cuban Cafe? Share your thoughts below!