First things first. The word “mojo” in Mojo Cuban Kitchen & Rum Bar, opened October 30, is pronounced “mo-hoh.” Derived from the garlicky red sauce often used in Cuban dishes, it is not to be confused with the magic powers kind of “mojo” (mo-joh).
That said, owners Nick and Alison Schaffer and Executive Chef Janet Balderas have ensured that Mojo has its mojo working at full volume.
Because the Schaffers wanted to bring the culture and traditions of America’s close, but estranged, neighbor to Tucson, they contracted Douglas Rodriquez to help with the kitchen set up.
Dubbed “The Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cooking,” Rodriguez is known for his innovative take on Cuban food. His expertise has won him numerous culinary awards and he has consulted for restaurants across the country.
Balderas, who is active in the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, has been in “the kitchen biz” since she was sixteen. She spent several years at the original Zona 78 before landing a job at Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. When she had the opportunity to head her own kitchen at Mojo, she leapt at it.
“The bases of our recipes are from Patricia Espinosa, Mojo’s sous chef who is from Cuba, and from her great-grandmother and grandmother,” Banderas said. “She took her knowledge of what she remembers tasting and used them as a base for recipes for her catering company.”
The Schaffers had tasted Espinosa’s food at Tucson Meet Yourself a few years back and loved everything she had on her menu. When the idea for Mojo began, they knew Espinosa had to play a major role.
“The rest of the recipes were from Douglas [Rodriguez] or from the things we got to try in Miami [the team took a trip there earlier this year] that we really loved. We tweaked a lot of it and made it our own,” Balderas said. “We wanted to bring the freshness of Miami, and then of course, make it a little bolder with the flavors that Tucson loves.”
Mojo’s dining room is bright and spacious. The bar has both inside and outside seating and takes up most of the south wall. Across from the bar are several large u-shaped booths.
Taking up the whole back wall is a mural of the restored American cars that Havana residents are famous for — a fitting tribute to their passion and talents.
The menu also shows passion and talent.
For a Smalls (starter) sampler, consider the plato mixto, offering two empanadas, two papas fritas, and two croquetas.
Cuban empanadas are more like tacos in that they are deep-fried and crispy rather than the soft pies we have here.
Papas fritas are seasoned smashed potatoes rolled into balls, stuffed with picadillo, washed in egg, coated in bread crumbs, and then fried to a golden brown. The result? A wonderful mix of contrasting tastes and textures.
The croquetas are Cuba’s take on a dumpling, filled, breaded, and then deep-fried.
Filling options are spinach and cheese or ham and cheese.
The picadillo is finely ground beef in a tangy sauce; it can also be made vegan with Impossible Beef. (Mojo has several other items that can be prepped vegan, but they cost a little more.)
The spinach and cheese filling has both Swiss and cream cheeses because Balderas wanted a bit of both “pull” and creaminess when you bite into the starter.
The Cubano filling consists of ham, cheese, and roasted pork — just like the sandwich that shares its name.
On the rest of the menu, you’ll find a few salads and about a half-dozen sandwiches including a classic Cubano, huge and perfectly toasted. All the elements are in perfect balance with a pickle in every bite. Fries are served on the side with all the sandwiches.
The entrees offer a sampler of traditional Cuban dishes: ropa vieja, picadillo, vaca frita, lechon asado, mojo chicken, and arroz con pollo. All, with the exception of the arroz con pollo, come with rice, black beans and maduros, and fried sweet plantains.
Desserts include arroz con leche, flan, guava cheesecake, and pastelitos: huge, flaky puff-pastry treats filled with either guava or guava and cheese.
From the rum-centric bar, you can order all the standbys like pina coladas, mojitos and Cuba Libres or try one of the many cocktails created by the bar team.
For something straight out of Havana, sample a botido – a Cuban milkshake. The trigo shake that has puffed wheat mixed in can be made vegan or spiked, with a shot of dark rum poured on top.
Sip and chips? Balderas suggests combining the chips with the pineapple guacamole or opting for one of Mojo’s dipping sauces: the house mojo or the lime cilantro aioli that has a splash of rum in the mix.
One fun element coming soon to Mojo is a walk-up window called La Ventanita, modeled after the ones found in Miami.
Located on the east side of the building, the window will serve as the pick-up spot for to-go orders and breakfast.
You can start your day with a variety of the starters – empanadas, papas rellenos, croquetas — or with a tostada, in this case Cuban bread buttered and pressed or one topped the pineapple guac.
Two breakfast empanadas are also available. They’re filled with either spinach, eggs, and cheese or fried ham, eggs, and cheese. To satisfy your sweet tooth, order a pastelito or two.
Add a Cafecito — sweetened espresso — and you’ll feel like you’re in the heart of Havana. According to the menu, a Cafecito “is the foundation for all the other Cuban coffee drinks,” of which there are several. The usual coffees and beverages are also on the morning menu.
The Mojo team has big plans for the near future.
“Tucson loves Happy Hour,” Balderas pointed out, “So a lot of our small bites are going to be on the Happy Hour menu, as is our Cubano sandwich. We really want people to try everything, get a couple of dollars knocked off, and have a great drink, too.”
Larger, more elaborate dinners are also in the works.
The Schaffers’ hope is that this Mojo is only the beginning.
“They wanted to bring what they love to Tucson and the flavors they love and they just want to continue upward,” Balderas said of her bosses. In that vein, the Schaffer’s hope to expand the concept and make the Tucson Mojo the flagship restaurant to other cities.
“They want to really focus and get this one right first so that the next one is as amazing as the first one,” she added.
I’m already planning my next meal there – arroz con pollo, some tostones with mojo sauce, or maybe a plate of maduros or maybe both with flan for dessert.
Mojo is open seven days a week for lunch or dinner, with LaVentanita serving breakfast from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Mojo Cuban Kitchen & Rum Bar is located at 1929 E. Grant Rd. For more information, visit mojocuban.com.
Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The...