Last summer while driving in Silver Spring MD I noticed a new restaurant that was absolutely hopping. I made a mental note to try it out. When I did, I found a very welcoming restaurant with terrific atmosphere and great food.
As the name implies, El Sapo Cuban Social Club serves Cuban food. The owner, Chef Raynold Mendizábal,was born in Cuba but left it on a raft in 1994.
For years, he has operated another restaurant in Silver Spring, Urban Butcher. He opened El Sapo in the summer of 2019 to serve the food of his homeland. The name is Spanish for Frog and was taken in homage to the traditions of Cuba and references the fact that he signed the lease for the building 22 years after arriving in America. Frog imagery abound inside the restaurant.
On the weekends, El Sapo has a special brunch menu. I have tried many if the items on it and have not had a bad one yet.
It’s not on the brunch menu, but as it is a sandwich I am including it here. At the top of my list to try was the most famous Cuban sandwich of all, the Cuban (El Cubano). It did not disappoint. Served in a freshly toasted bun and containing plenty of ham and cheese, it was absolutely delicious. The sandwich came with a side of fries and a mild chipotle dipping sauce, which was good, but the sandwich itself stole the show.
Another favorite brunch item of mine is the chicken and waffles. The chicken is served Cuban style – marinated in a sweet, Coca-Cola based sauce. The waffles are light and fluffy. The two make a great combination. Also on the menu are several egg dishes: an omelet, a hash called Vaca Frita, and the Breakfast Cubano. Of these, I have had the Breakfast Cubano – a skillet with eggs, ham, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. It comes out warm 2 large pieces of grilled bread on top. That last item comes in handy as the eggs are served the way I like them – runny. Perfect for dipping.
I’ll mention here that there are a couple of coffee drinks on the menu. All are made with a dark roasted Cuban coffee, brimming with flavor. I have had the Cafe Tres Leches – their version of a Latte – and cortadito, which is a Cuban drink similar to an espresso but is half milk. The also have an expresso drink called the Cubano, which I have not tried.
The Tres Leches is a reference to the classic Tres Leches dessert, a cake drenched in three kinds of milk. The Cafe Tres Leches is very sweet, offsetting the bitter coffee. I like it a lot and often order it with my lunch.
Appetizers and sides
El Sapo has a small selection of appetizers and side dishes. Here are the ones that I have tried: Quimbombo – grilled okra with garlic and peppers, Yuka Frita – fried yuca, Masitas – fried pieces of pork, Manchego cheese with Red Peppers, and Maduros – fried plantains with a mildly spicy dipping sauce.
All are quite good, but the one that stands out above the others are the Masitas. The pork is crispy on the outside, but juicy and tender on the inside. Served in a sweet and spicy orange sauce, the combination is simply amazing. I do have to warn you; it has a lot of fat (that’s why it is so flavorful).
Also of note is the the yuka frita is not made with strips yuca, which is t he way I normally have it. Instead, the yuca is ground, shaped into logs, breaded and fried. It’s a good appetizer, but was not at all what I was expecting. I like plantains a lot and tend to order it in Hispanic restaurants. In addition to having it fried, you can also get it a flattened and grilled from – tostones. The fried from is sweeter, so that is what I prefer.
Soups and Salads
There is not too much on the menu in regards to soups and salads, but what is there I like a lot.
The two salads – Tomato/Avocado and Cucumber/Papaya – are excellent. The cucumbers are crisp and fresh while the papayas are ripe and juicy. Topped with a mildly sweet balsamic glaze, the combination is terrific. Likewise, the tomato salad is full of chunks of fresh, juicy tomatoes balanced by a heap of queso fresco cheese on top.
Of the two soups, my favorite is the Ajiaco. Ajiaco is the national soup of Cuba. The base is a thick pork broth (El Sapo’s version uses a pigs head rendered overnight). The ingredients are very carbohydrate heavy: potatoes, yuca, and plantains, along with a small amount of corn. Finally, it is topped with a fresh cilantro and sliced onions, and a healthy amount of Masitas. It is a flavorful and hearty soup; the perfect meal for a cold, winter day. Or, in my case, an unseasonably cold spring day. As for the gazpacho, I cannot recommend it as I thought it was bland.
All of El Sapo’s entrees are meat heavy. The dishes have generous amounts of it. My two favorites are the Ropa Vieja and the Puerco Asado. Ropa Vieja is made with stewed beef, peppers and beans. At least, there are peppers and beans in there if you look hard enough. The dish is mostly beef. The sauce gives the dish a distinct flavor. Very good , but a I found it a bit salty.
Puerco Asado is Cuba’s national dish. I cannot recommend this dish highly enough. El Sapo’s version is fantastic, spoiling me for pork elsewhere! Consisting of roasted pork, juicy and tender, it is brimming with flavor (and, as you may suspect, fat). As I said, the portion sizes are generous as well. Both of these dishes were big enough that I had leftovers for several meals.
As you would expect of cuisine from an island nation, there are several fish dishes on the menu. My favorite is the Camarones Enchilados. It consists of shrimp served in a tomato based sauce along with olives, peppers, onions, and roasted garlic. These blend into a unique, exquisite, flavor. I did find some of the shrimp tasted a little fishy, but I enjoyed the dish so much that I plan to get it again.
One of El Sapo’s signature dishes is fried fish (Pescado Frito). It is a whole Mojarra fish deep fried. It comes in three sizes: small, medium, and large. I ordered the small, which turned out to be too little as I did not get enough meat. What meat I did get was delicious; flaky and light, with no hint of a fish taste. The fish was accompanied by two sauces: a spicy salsa and a cilantro. I preferred the salsa, feeling that it went with the fish better.
Also in the fish category is ceviche. A whole section of the menu is dedicated it. The options are: classic (Ceviche Clasico), tuna conch, shrimp, salmon, and smoked mussels. I tried the Clasico. The preparation was excellent. With perfect texture, big chunks of fish, and a vinaigrette giving it a nice tang, the ceviche made for a good meal. My one complain is that I found it a little salty for me, but have no hesitation in recommending it.
Of the desserts on El Sapo’s menu, I have had the Pastelitos — a stuffed pastry– , a chocolate mouse, and the churros. They also have a flan, a classic Hispanic custard, or coconut ice cream. I absolutely love the Churros. Churros, another classic Hispanic dessert, consist of long thin rolls of dough, fried and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. El Sapo’s version is excellent. They are freshly made and come out warm. The consistency is crispy on the outside but soft on the inside. And they are not greasy at all. I also like the fact that they only slightly sweet, even with the dusting of sugar. Light and served with freshly made whipped cream, they are the perfect finish to a meal.
The Pastelitos are expertly made. The pastry is very light and airy and the guava filling is tasty. But I could have used a little more of it.
The chocolate mousse was a special offering El Sapo had recently. It consists of two layers of mousse, one white and one dark chocolate, sandwiching chunks of peaches and topped with candied coca puffs. The mousse is excellent; very light and creamy. It tasted freshly made and definitely was not sitting around in a refrigerator for a long time. The peaches did not have much flavor, but they did provide a nice texture to the dish. Overall, a great dessert.
As you would expect from a place called a social club, El Sapo has a variety of cocktails. I have had most of them: a hibiscus sangria, a lavender margarita, a Manhattan De Miami, and a drink called the Hot Passion. They also have a Mojito, which I have not tried.
I like every single one of them. All are made with high quality alcohol. The Manhattan is made with Ron Zaya rum aged three years, mixed with a house blend of vermouth. But my favorite cocktail is the Hot Passion. It is a fruity drink made with passion fruit, Carta Blanca rum, and hot peppers; the perfect blend of sweet and spice.
The name “Social Club” gives me the impression of a place with both food and dancing. While Cuban dance music is constantly playing, there is no open area big enough to serve as a dance floor and I have not seen patrons dancing. I have occasionally seen the staff dancing during short breaks, though.
Nevertheless, El Sapo Social Club does have the atmosphere of a casual night club. It has garage door style windows, which opens the place up when the weather is mild. On the bar side, the window opens to a an outdoor a patio, a pleasant place to eat ordrink during the summer months. Additionally, El Sapo has the feel of a small, family run club. The staff is very small. And one of them told me that she painted the signs on the wall. The whole restaurant seems like a family affair.
With great food, great cocktails, pleasant and welcoming staff, and a terrific atmosphere, El Sapo is perfect for a night out or a fancy brunch, regardless of the weather.
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