Shake It Up, Baby: Cuban Cocktail Is Making a Splash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adios, apple martini. A tropical rum cocktail is the new "it" drink in the city of trends. Sure, the City of Angels still loves you, apple of our eye, but mojitos, with their deceptively tasty minty wallop, are so very this year.

Oceanside in Venice or Santa Monica? Hillside on the Sunset Strip? Downtown during happy hour? Fine dining in Beverly Hills, Los Feliz or Pasadena? The mojito mambo is there. Why, poolside at the W Hotel in Westwood, where Kim Noonan mixes a wicked mojito , the bar itself is called Mojito.

"They're very refreshing, sweet and tangy at the same time, and they're potent," says Tanya Cohen, a producer who is catching up on her screenplay reading at the W's pool. I love them. It's the perfect drink to have by the pool on a Sunday afternoon."

The mojito (pronounced mo-hee-toe), Cuba's most famous cocktail, has become the No. 1 summer drink--and not just in the Southland. Wildly popular in Miami for years, the mojito is now being served up from New York to Portland, in the classic style--the way Ernest Hemingway drank it in Havana--or with contemporary twists for distinction. Essentially a rum and lime spritzer, bartenders across L.A. are substituting vodka, cognac and a variety of fruit flavors to make their own mark on the drink.

"Every once in a while, a drink comes along that captures the flavor of the city or season," says David Organisak, a bartender at Spago Beverly Hills, who strolled into Xiomara in Old Town Pasadena last week to taste the restaurant's infamous rum and sugarcane juice concoction. " Mojitos do both. They're the perfect summer drink. I'm getting more and more requests for them at the bar. I thought I'd come in here and see if I'm doing it right."

Xiomara Ardolina has been serving mojito s at her "nuevo Latino" restaurant for six years, long before the craze for one of Papa's favorite drinks hit L.A. "I noticed on a trip to Miami that this was the biggest drink being served out there, and I decided I had to bring it here," Ardolina said.

"But now almost everywhere you go you can find a mojito . I think it has to do with the Cuban craze. Just like Cuban music is so popular, the food and the drinks are very hot. As a people, we were practically put to sleep for 40 years. But we Cubans are so outgoing and lively that it was only a matter of time before people noticed our music, our food and everything beautiful about our culture."

The drink owes its unique flavor to an herb in the spearmint family called yerbabuena, which is less sweet than mint. The original mojito is a blend of muddled yerbabuena sprigs (or mint leaves), fresh lime juice and sugar, mixed with light rum, ice cubes, club soda and bitters. Ardolina's "Mambo" mojito excludes bitters and replaces sugar with fresh sugarcane juice, called guarapo in Cuba, which she presses at the bar with a special machine. Guarapo juice, according to a Cuban countryside legend, which Ardolina gladly shares, has the same lasting effect as Viagra.

"I can attest to that," says Manuel Remon, a senior vice president at Banco Popular in Commerce, who enjoyed a mojito during his lunch at Xiomara last week. "In Cuba, I drank guarapo all the time, and I had five children in three years."

"All my old Cuban customers tell me that," says Ardolina, who, with her brother Osvaldo Rodriguez, serves 100 to 110 mojito s on weekend nights. Their mojito s are garnished with a sugarcane stick and served in tall glasses that slant 10 degrees and confuse even sober customers.

"I'm on my first mojito, and already the glass looks crooked," says Cuba native Jose Carlos Arco, a vice president and manager at Banco Popular. "If you drink two more, it will straighten up," Ardolina says and laughs at the joke she has obviously told before.

"The color is what makes the drink," Rodriguez says. "When we first pour it, the colors just look beautiful."

"Don't underestimate the aesthetics of it," agrees Bryan Fuller, who manages the poolside bar at the Standard Hotel on the Sunset Strip. "The mojito pleases anyone who wants something a little sweet but with a little bit of a kick. But the ingredients give it this allure. I don't know, whoever invented it sure knew what they were doing."

Originally called the Draque in the 19th century, the drink, which was named after Sir Francis Drake, was made with aguardiente, a rough cane-juice liquor distilled by field workers. Later, it was upgraded to include refined rum and became a bar staple, almost the national cocktail. It was renamed mojito , likely after another Cuban staple, a heavily used marinade called mojo .

The first mojito is believed to have been served at Hotel Sevilla in Old Havana but was made most popular by Hemingway at La Bodeguita del Medio, the one-time Havana grocery store that became a restaurant after World War II and drew poets, journalists, intellectuals and bohemians.

On Cuba's white sand beaches, particularly on Playa La Concha in Havana, the mojito struck big in the 1950s when a group of bartenders turned muddling and mixing into an assembly-line sideshow. The last bartender on the line threw the glass in the air, rotating it, before serving it to the customer.

"That sounds like a great way to do it because making the drink right is very labor intensive," says Frank Anguiano, bartender at Bar Marmont, the restaurant and bar next to the Chateaux Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. "Each one takes one to two minutes, but I can't stop making them. People order one, and pretty soon they're on their third one because it tastes like a mint lemonade, and they can't taste the alcohol. Then, all of a sudden, boom! In Hollywood, they're probably so popular because everybody here is into the natural herbs and yada yada yada. Everything in a mojito is fresh."

The key to the drink, bartenders agree, is not to rush its preparation. And to treat the mint "with tender, loving care," Fuller says. Using a pestle and mortar, bartenders gently crush the mint with the lime juice and the sugar for each drink before adding the alcohol and other ingredients.

To prepare the mint mixture in advance helps speed things along at the bar but takes away from the flavor, Fuller says. "People who like this drink are savvy enough to know that it takes a few more seconds to make. But it's like ordering a burger well done--you're willing to wait."

The drink, which is priced anywhere from $3.50 at some happy hours up to $10, is such a hit that Restoration Hardware stores sold out of its mojito mix a month into summer. Restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory and James Beach in Venice are serving them, and even Lisa Wells, bar manager at Sushi Roku in Beverly Hills, is considering adding the drink to her list because customers keep requesting it.

Wells goes to vermont in Los Feliz for her mojito s--and her man. Her husband, bartender Kurtis Wells, makes two versions, one with Bacardi Lemon and another with Alize cognac and Absolute mandarin. "I love drinking it and having the taste of mint and sugar on my lips after," Lisa says.

Likewise, says Raffi Zerounian, who tasted his first mojito Friday night at Mojito with friends. The women in the group were mojito veterans; the men were virgins. "As Armenians, we can appreciate the mint," Zerounian joked. "It would go great with my shish kebob."

Eddie Azizian, 21, sipped his friend's drink and said, "It's not bad." Then he picked up the drink again and took another chug, upgrading his critique. "Mmmm, this is really good. What do you call this again, a mamacita ?"

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