Nestled in the heart of Calle Ocho, one of Miami’s most iconic and vibrant neighborhoods, Sala’o Cuban Restaurant & Bar is a contemporary, Cuban-American restaurant & bar as heralded for its soulful menu as it was for its bustling bar scene. And then COVID arrived and though the lights never went out at Sala’o, proprietors saw in the mandated closures and restrictions an opportunity to revamp, refine and relaunch. Now, as they celebrate their one-year anniversary, the eatery is officially announcing its new executive chef, his inspired new menus and a dynamite new bar program inspired by the vibrant flavors of Cuba executed with panache and unfailing technique.
“Putting it gently, this has been a difficult time for everyone in the restaurant and hospitality business,” says Eliesteban Mena, who co-owns Sala’o as well as Old’s Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina, located just steps away from Sala’o on 8th Street in Little Havana. “We’ve done what we needed to do to get through and back to where we can begin seating customers again. Through it we saw a chance to elevate everything at Sala’o and reopen stronger than ever.” A major aspect to that elevation, newly appointed Executive Chef Alejandro Porben. A native of Cuba, Porben joins Sala’o with an impressive culinary background. Prior to his current role at the eatery, Porben worked at some of Miami’s highly acclaimed restaurants including Scarpetta at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, Pubbelly Sushi Dadeland, and Zuma. Porben is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami and the Culinary Association of the Republic of Cuba.
Along with fellow owners Earl Campos Devine and Oscar Rodriguez, Eliesteban Mena designed and conceptualized Sala’o as a tribute to Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway lived on the island of Cuba for more than 20 years, and wrote the famous novel during his residency. “We are thrilled to have Chef Alejandro at the helm,” says Mena. “He understands our vision and created a menu that communicates it through cooking. We’re excited to share the changes with our guests and local community.”
Chef Porben’s inventive new menu – set to go live on Wednesday, September 23rd – mixes the flavors of his Caribbean roots, his classic culinary training and deep experience with global cuisine. New lunch offerings include the Fritto Mixto – fried seafood medley with cilantro aioli; Conch Fritters; Deep Fried Snapper; and Cuban Sliders.
The dinner menu is divided into eight sections: Crudo, Apps, Ensaladas, Sopas, Main Courses, Arroces, Postres, Happy Hour & Late Night. To start, Crudo items offer guests a selection of fresh seafood simply prepared with bold flavors. Standout dishes include the Ceviche Cubano – corvina, red pepper, onion, coconut leche de tigre; and Carpaccio de Swordfish — fresh swordfish, ponzu caviar, guava marmalade, celery, foam. Encouraged to be shared are Apps, such as the Sardine Croquettes — bechamel, sofrito, salsa verde; Pulpo Criollo — sofrito, Idaho potato, Spanish chorizo; Maiz en Rueda — corn, garlic confit, soy sauce, white balsamic, cilantro; and Pincho de Res —mignon skewer, pimenton de la Vera, roasted red pepper sauce. Hearty dishes from the Main Course section include Pork Belly — confit smoked pork belly, black bean, maduro chimichurri, avocado mousse; Fillet de Pargo — pan seared red snapper, baked potato, roasted peppers, green beans; Calamares Rellenos — stuffed U10 calamari, black rice, pickled onion, pumpkin puree; and Pichon Cubano — marinated Cornish hen, carrot puree, sautéed white beans, sofrito. Arroces (rices) at Sala’o include the Arroz Asopa’o de Mariscos — classic seafood rice, and the Arroz Negro de Calamar – calamari, squid ink rice.
Flavorful, bold and comforting dishes can be found under Late Night, such as the Salmon Chicharron — crispy salmon skin, tomato caper sauce; and Pinchos de Pollo — chicken skewer, sweet & sour sauce. Guests can end on a sweet note with a selection of decadent postres like the Fanguito — burnt condensed milk mousse, croutons, chocolate, Maldon salt; Tiramisu de Chocolate — chocolate custard, cookies, orange; and Tarta de Coco — coconut pie, burnt condensed milk, vanilla sauce.
In addition to its new lunch, dinner and late-night offerings, the neighborhood gem recently introduced an enticing Sunday brunch. The brunch features an impressive spread of brunch favorites: Omelettes, Breads, Crudo, and Salad. Omelette dishes include the tortilla Cubana, revoltillo (scrambled eggs), huevos fritos (fried eggs), and huevos benedictos — Cuban style eggs Benedict made with Creole fish stew, corn, peas, and sweet plantain hollandaise. Bread offerings include both savory and sweet fare, such as the Cuban slider — brioche bun, pork masita confit, jam, cheese, mustard, mayo, pickle and onion; waffle con tortilla; bao bao de pork belly — smoked pork belly, pickle mix, spicy paprika aioli; and torrejas — chicken fingers, honey onion, and scallion. Crudo selections include the coctel de camarones; fresh oysters; and crudito de salmon — salmon sashimi, watermelon sauce, citrus gel. Brunch libations such as the Sala’o Bloody Mary — secret mix, vodka, spicy salt, honey-glazed pork belly, rosemary and celery foam; and Bubbles — a selection of French sparkling wine, Moet Imperial Brut or Moet Imperial Rose with fresh juices, are also be available.
Much like the fare, the cocktail program at Sala’o highlights the bounty of Cuba’s indigenous ingredients as well as pay homage to the island’s rich cocktail heritage. Developed by dream beverage power duo Ben Potts and Gui Jaroschy, under the Halcyon Beverages banner, new cocktails are sure to be as sought after as Sala’os food. Sala’o Originals include La Guara — Grey Goose, Fresh Lime, Garden Rosemary and Clementine Reduction, Sparkling Water; and Acere Swizzle — Havana Club Anejo, Fresh Lime, Orange, and others. Sala’o Classics include the Mojito Supreme — Bacardi Superior, Lime; and the Hemingway #4 — Bacardi Anejo 4, Grapefruit, Lime, Maraschino. Also available is a special tableside Gin & Tonic service, which features variations on the classic drink. Standout selections include the Varadero — Hendrick’s gin, Mediterranean tonic water, lemon, olive, fresh rosemary; and the Cayo Largo — Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice, Fever Tree Indian tonic water, dried grapefruit, thyme and golden berry, among others.
The 2,300-square-foot restaurant is designed to transport guests to 1940s Cuba while channeling Hemingway’s home in Cojímar, a small fishing village outside Havana. Eclectic and cozy, the eatery is adorned with crystal chandeliers, marble accents, and wood finishes. An intimate stage at the back of the space, easily visible from both the dining room and the sophisticated bar, can be home to live music or a DJ. A mural of Papa himself can be found just inside the entrance, the scribe himself personally welcoming, in a figurative manner, guests to one of Miami’s most definitive dining and drinking dens.
Sala’o is located at 1642 SW 8th Street in Miami. The restaurant is open daily from Noon to 10PM. Happy Hour is offered daily from 4PM to 8PM. Sunday brunch available 11AM to 4PM. Telephone: (305) 642-8989; www.salaorestaurant.com