A server carries a Dutch oven through the lively, clamorous dining room of El Sapo Cuban Social Club, the thrilling new Silver Spring restaurant that Urban Butcher chef and owner Raynold Mendizábal opened in October. After he sets the pot on the table and removes the lid, alluring aromas of its contents—four meaty oxtails, orange slices, cherry tomatoes and a tangle of oregano stems mingling in a dark, rich braising liquid—seduce the diners who ordered it.
A few tables away, manager Judita D’Oliviera ignites a sky-high sparkler attached to a bottle of cava and starts singing “Happy Birthday” to a celebrant. Salsa music fills the air, and throughout the dining room, whether they realize it or not, patrons are moving their shoulders and tapping their feet to the rhythm of the beat.
Mendizábal, a Cuban native who lives in Silver Spring, calls El Sapo a social club rather than a restaurant because he wants guests to experience Cuba’s culture. “The music, the colors, the food, the laughter—I want everyone to feel a part of it, to sing, to spontaneously get up and dance. We want it to be contagious because our culture is contagious,” he says.
The welcome mat at El Sapo says “entra bailando” (enter dancing), and, if you follow its foot diagram for salsa steps, you will. At the host stand, there’s no host—just a musician and his keyboard, jamming as D’Oliviera walks up and greets you.
El Sapo, which occupies the ground floor of the recently built Central Silver Spring development, is basically a big concrete box. It’s so loud (93 decibels, “between motorcycle and food blender” on my phone’s Decibel X app) that you may leave hoarse and with your head ringing. That drawback, in my book, makes the experience a three-run home run instead of a grand slam. Go warned and yield to the fun.
Mendizábal, 48, is a Havana-born academic in mathematics and physics who left Cuba on a raft when he was 24. He was picked up at sea, spent a year in a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay and arrived in the United States in 1995. He wound up in Pittsburgh, where he rose from dishwasher to cook in the restaurant business. In 2000, he came to Washington, where his career included chef stints at Pesce restaurant and Fujimar. He opened Urban Butcher in Silver Spring in 2013. (Continued on next page.)
El Sapo Cuban Social Club
Overall Rating: A-
8455-1 Fenton St., Silver Spring; 301-326-1063; elsaporestaurant.com
Favorite Dishes: Blistered okra; bay scallop and coconut ceviche; braised oxtails; street food sampler
Prices:Appetizers: $6 to $18; Entrées: $22 to $28; Desserts: $6 to $12
Libations: The fun and creativity in the dining room and on the food menu at El Sapo carry over to the drinks. The cocktail list includes lots of rum cocktails, such as a mojito, a Cuba Libre and the Hot Pasión, made with passion fruit, ginger and chili peppers. Go for the Manhattan de Miami, prepared tableside with a barrel-aged house-made rum concoction. The wine selections are Spanish: two cavas, seven whites and eight reds ($32 to $72); and four “Chef’s Rare Finds,” among them a 2014 Arrocal Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero wine region of Spain for $72. The dessert list features four aged rums, such as Zacapa Solera 23, $8 for 1 ounce. Teetotalers can enjoy fresh coconut water, orange juice and ginger-cilantro citronade.
Happy hour at El Sapo runs from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and all day on Sundays. Look for lower prices on street food items, Cubano sandwiches, mojitos and house beer and wine.
Service: On their game, especially given the amount of tableside service required at El Sapo.