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Review: Bongos Cuban Cafe

At long last, we finally made it to the Downtown Disney hotspot that is Bongos Cuban Cafe!

I’ll admit, I’d been putting off my visit to this restaurant. I hadn’t heard great reviews, and I wasn’t sure I’d like the food. But I’m SUCH a giant loser — what have I been waiting for?!?

I had a great time, I had awesome food…and it’s finally time to peek inside and find out what the Big Pineapple has to offer!

Atmosphere

With architecture billed as “Old Havana” in style, this breezy, open restaurant certainly puts you in the mood for a tropical drink and a conga line. ;-) When we visited just before St. Patrick’s Day, Downtown Disney was alive with the excitement of a young, vibrant crowd, ready to get their dance on! The traditional Cuban dance music pouring out from the restaurant beckons you to come take a closer look and listen, and was perfect for a warm, breezy Florida evening.

Bongos Sign

Originally, our Advanced Dining Reservation was scheduled for much later than our 7:30 meet up time. When we checked in at the podium, though, we had no trouble getting a seat immediately. As a newcomer to Cuban food, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the fun setting hinted of some adventurous eating ahead!

One of THE most amazing features of Bongos is the wide open feel of the place. Seating is available both inside and outside, giving the restaurant an authentic Cuban or Miami vibe. After all, these are places where people “live outside,” and restaurants in these locations really reflect that.

To help with the heat, both inside and out, we noticed high ceilings and lots of ceiling fans. It really lends to the impression of cool, airy spaces.

Outdoor Atmosphere

The upstairs veranda also provides a pleasant view of surrounding hotels, the Characters in Flight balloon, and the lake beyond. VERY cool view, eh??

Upstairs Outdoor Seating

While the walls inside are painted to give an old world, weathered feel (and the stone no doubt lends to a sense of coolness on a sweltering Florida summer day), there are plenty of colorful splashes to engage the eye, from the conga drum bar stools to the free floating mobiles above.

First Bar Area

We especially loved the quotes in Spanish stenciled around the inside of the rounded walls in one of the seating areas. Pretty cool!

Second Bar Area

Now when I say this place is huge, I mean HUGE! There are tables everywhere, and you should seriously drop some breadcrumbs on your way to bathroom to make sure you get back to the right place when you’re done!!

With seating upstairs, downstairs, indoors, outdoors…there are plenty of options.

Upstairs Seating

Upstairs Seating Area

Downstairs Seating

Seating Area by Live Music

The downside to the soaring ceilings, wide open spaces, and festive music: it does make for difficult conversation.

Since we wanted to chat while we were enjoying our food, my dinner partner and I were happy when the hostess led us to this cozy and somewhat quieter alcove, just beyond the second bar area.

Seating Area Where We Were

Once you figure out all of the seating areas, it’s time to look floor to ceiling at the decor! Throughout the space, walls were adorned with different portraiture, from folk art and mosaics, to this glossy, full-size photograph of the restaurant’s owner, singer Gloria Estefan.

Gloria Estefan Decor

Bongos Decor

Decor

But enough about the walls, tables, and chairs. On to the food!

Eats

The menu at Bongos is primarily Cuban, which is a fusion of Spanish and African cuisine, with a dash of Caribbean influence thrown in for good measure. As a result, dishes are flavorful without being overly spicy.

You won’t find the heat in Cuban food that you expect from some Latino cuisine. Rather, there’s an emphasis on garlic, citrus juices, onions, and herbs. It was totally new to me, but luckily my dining partner is a food guru, so she walked me through it!

Menu items at Bongos - click image for larger version

But before we could get started with bites we knew tropical drinks were in order! Big ones!

Beverage Menu at Bongos - click image for larger version

Everyone knows that when you’re in a Cuban restaurant, you MUST try the mojito; and luckily, my friend loves them! She decided to try the coconut version, made with Bacardi Coconut Rum and real coconut juice.

It was pronounced to be delicious and pleasantly strong, with the delicate coconut flavors perfectly complimenting the mint.

Mojito

Since I’m not a big fan of mint, I chose the Havanna Punch, which featured Limon Rum, melon liqueur, and a trio of juices. Our attentive server saw that I was searching for pineapple on the menu, and made sure that my glass was garnished nicely with some thick, juicy slices.

Havanna Punch

As you can see, the Havanna Punch was enormous! It came with a souvenir glass. I showed my receipt at the gift shop and am now the proud owner of this enormous goblet.

And, I’ll admit, I only drank half of this giantness, so I can’t even really tell you how strong it was. But I will say that it was delicious!

Drink Size Comparison: Havanna Punch vs Water Glass

Looking over the gigantic menu took a bit of time, and we asked our server for his suggestions. We quickly settled on the appetizer platter as it offered a TON of variety! The Bongo Combo claims to feed two people, but there was easily enough food for three or four to share and still get a taste of everything.

The yuca cups, shown in front, were the most unique item on the platter. Made of yuca, a starchy, potato-like vegetable, the cups are fried to crisp-tender perfection and stuffed with baby shrimp and picadillo beef filling. They were nice and fresh.

Bongos Combo Appetizer Platter

The fried stuffed potatoes featured a perfectly crisp outer layer of potato, and inside held a flavorful picadillo beef filling surrounded by more fluffy potato.

Fried Stuffed Potatoes

Stuffed Potato Close-Up

The ham croquettes were a delicious combination of creamy cheese and salty minced ham. Personally, I thought the texture was a bit mushy, so I didn’t finish my full allotment here.

Ham Croquettes

Ham Croquette Close-Up

The tamale featured a traditional shredded pork filling encased in a moist, cornbread-like outer layer, and was served unwrapped, sitting on a bed of corn husk. All of this was topped with marinated tangy onions that made other appearances throughout the meal.

This was likely my least favorite item on the platter, as it felt pretty much like wet cornbread in my mouth and I couldn’t quite get past that. I’m pretty sure that’s a reaction based on my lack of experience with this type of food and NOT with the taste or flavor, however.

Tamale

The marinated fried pork bites were a stand out, though! The mojo seasoning, made of sour orange juice, garlic, and spices, really shone through in the deep flavor and tenderness of the meat. This one definitely had a kick, but of flavor — not spice. It’s not what you expect, but it’s quite good!

Mojo Marinated Fried Pork Bites

We were pretty much stuffed after this (you can imagine!), but we had to make room for entrees!

First up: the Lechon Asado, or slow roasted pork leg prepared with mojo and served with fried sweet plantains and moro rice. The slightly sauteed, marinated onions added a tangy sour note to the pork, which contrasted nicely with the deep, slow roasted, succulence of the dish. My friend really enjoyed the moro rice as well, which consisted of rice cooked with black beans and ample amounts of flavorful pork and seasonings.

Lechon Asado: Slow Roasted Pork Leg

I chose the Vaca Frita de Pollo, or shredded chicken, on our server’s recommendation. It arrived at our table sizzling on a cast iron skillet.

I wasn’t really sure how good “shredded chicken” could be, but Oh my Gracious — I’m still thinking about that stuff!! It was well seasoned without being spicy — a super-flavorful, savory dish — and was not at all dry, which I often expect shredded chicken to be. Amazing. I can’t wait to have more!

Shredded Chicken

Shredded Chicken Close-Up

The chicken came with the same sweet plantains, and was accompanied by steamed white rice. Did I need the side dishes? No. I just wanted more of that chicken!! ;-)

Plantains and Rice with the Shredded Chicken

OK, sports fans, time for dessert! I don’t leave you hanging very often when it comes to this course, do I? ;-)

We asked for a menu (which finally came…after the server tried to give us our check first…??), and decided on a couple of traditional options.

The tres leches cake was exactly as you would expect it to be: mild, rather plain cake, soaked in a milk mixture, and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. If you like the traditional approach to this dessert, you’ll get exactly what you expect.

Tres Leches

Our other choice was rice pudding (on the recommendation of our server). While the taste was sweet and mild, it was not the normal pudding consistency. It was looser and more liquidy than other rice puddings I’ve tasted, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing! Somehow, this made me like it even more than I expected.

It was the kind of dessert that, after the first bite, you think “OK, that’s all right, but I don’t need too much more of it,” and then you proceed to eat spoonful after spoonful. I wonder if the Havana Punch was doing the talking there… ;-)

Rice Pudding

Overall

So, my preconceptions have been foiled again! I was pleasantly surprised by Bongos Cuban Cafe! The food was fresh and varied, the portions were hefty, and we had no trouble being seated, even on a busy night at Downtown Disney. While our location, tucked away in a cozy booth near the second bar, didn’t afford terrific people-watching, it provided us with a great place to talk and chat after a busy day in the parks.

The food conveys characteristic Cuban flavors, and the variety of dishes available made it easy for us to sample lots of different tastes.

While some of the prices on the menu might be a little steep for traditional, homestyle Cuban delicacies, the combination of interesting food, plus the fact that we were seated so quickly and easily, makes Bongos Cuban Cafe a good choice for anyone looking for a last minute ADR, or for a meal that’s off the beaten path.

Can’t wait to go back and have more of that chicken!!

Have you eaten at Bongos Cuban Cafe? Share your thoughts below!

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19 Comments

  1. Jason says:

    We really enjoy eating here although it can be VERY loud (but fun). If you like tamales, then these are good pork tamales. I never thought of anyone having a problem with the texture of a tamale, but, then again, I grew up in a part of TX where we ate a lot of tamales.

  2. Alan says:

    I am happy this restaurant is now on the dining plan. In the past, with all the meals on the plan, we haven’t had the inclination or the room to add an extra meal out of pocket. With this place as well as the other new participants to the DDP I feel new excitement with using the meal plan. AJ’s review just adds more “spice” to this feeling. And, of course a couple of those Havana Punches…..

  3. Jenn says:

    Oh, good, you don’t need any side dishes — so I can have your plantains, right?

  4. I think you sat the same booth that I did the last time I went! This place is one of our favorites. I think my 2 favorite things about this restaurant are 1) their various kinds of slow-roasted pork, which you tried, and 2) the incredible open feel of the place which managed to expertly articulate.

  5. AJ says:

    Jason — I’m 100% sure the tamale thing is a personal issue and not a problem with the tamale itself. While I live in Texas now, I grew up in the Northeast, so my tamale experience is very limited! :-)

    Alan — Ha ha! That as easily one of the largest drinks I’ve ever been served! So glad you guys like this spot.

    Jenn — They’re all yours! :-)

    DJ — I was really impressed with this spot and can see it being perfect for a family dinner or for a large group event (perhaps up on the second floor terrace). Very cool!

  6. Kristina says:

    This is too funny….I’ve never had this happen….

    I read the first paragraph under Atmosphere and thought, thats funny…I was there during the St. Patties day celebration.

    Then, I saw your picture of the bar…and there is my brother and my boyfriend on the far left of that photo. Guy with beard….my boyfriend, guy sitting with a green shirt, brother.

    Great minds think alike!

    The food there was so good that this was our second time going on our trip. My mom is Cuban and although, she doesn’t cook….my grandparents did. Its nice to go to a place that actually resembles that type of cuisine. Not like those other ‘Cuban’ restaurants (I’m looking at you Cuba Libre). Next time you go…if you liked the appetizer with shrimp in that basket of pastry puff…you should get the seafood medley dish. I can lick that sauce by itself. A little spicy, but not too hot..and a little citris-y/garlic-y. So good. Also, the flan is pretty tasty. Firm but light, a great way to end a big meal.

    My only grip was that they didn’t give enough mojito sauce to go with our plantain chips. Oh, and they were really confused with the DDP. Since we were a party of 6, gratuity is automatically tacked onto the bill. The server on our first night told us that it wasn’t added on….so he was tipped twice!! :/

  7. Shayne says:

    Wow, the menu is huge! I don’t know how you ever managed to choose an entree! I like Cuban food, but it is remarkably hard to find here. Will have to keep Bongos in mind for a future trip!

  8. richard says:

    I have to say, my household had one of the worst Walt Disney World dining experiences we’ve ever had at Bongos. The food was average at best, it was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think (let alone have a conversation) and the service was abysmal. We literally had to chase down a waiter to pay the check. After handing him our credit card, he vanished for over 35 minutes. When I asked a staffer where our waiter had gone, they said, “He’s on his dinner break.” Seriously! When we asked that they either get him or have someone retrieve our check (and credit card!) from him so that we could pay and leave, they first refused and then said that he had left the property for his dinner break. When FINALLY he came back and we were “permitted” to pay our bill, it was with no apology whatsoever. The ONLY positive experience was the drinks we had at the bar before dinner, with a very funny, friendly and helpful bartender. But given the way we were treated and the overall experience, I will never, ever walk into that place again. And I’ve never said that about any restaurant on Disney property.

  9. venessa says:

    A.J. You seriously need to go to South Texas and find yourself some awesome tamales!! Heck, if dry ice wasn’t expensive, I’d send you some of my g’mas pork tamales mhmm. HAHA

    Back to the review, thanks for it. I’ve eaten the stuff they have to offer in the side little window, the counter service or grab and go area and it was really good stuff. So it’s good to keep hearing positive reviews from this place and hope to try it one day.

    And tres leches cake, enough said. I can live off of that cake! I really hope disney can make it for our wedding.

  10. Sarai says:

    Looks beautiful in there and hope to get to try it for the first time on our upcoming Disney trip later this month. I wonder if you need reservations or not?? Or is it less crowded earlier in the evening? I have heard you don’t need reservations for this restaurant, that in fact they are not even accepted, but on the Disney dining website it is available to reserve. Only problem is it is too late for us to have dinner with a 6 year old child in tow (nearly 8 pm), so hopefully if we show up they can accomodate us as we plan on eating earlier (5-6 ish) and maybe it won’t be as crowded and noisy (my child hates loud music and noises, and we’re not too fond of it either but can tolerate it).

    Also I was excited to see the Bongo Combo as that is an item I wanted to order, but don’t know if it’s just the picture or not but it looks small to me and I can’t see how 2 people let alone 3 or 4 would be able to fill up on this. Honestly I was planning to make it our shared entree as I was expecting it to be larger portions but now I’m not so sure. Don’t think I can make a dinner out of just one of each item on there. I understand it is an appetizer and not an entree but at some places you can make a whole meal out of an appy. Again, not sure if it’s just the perspective or not. Guess we’ll find out when we go.

  11. Sandra says:

    Never eaten inside, but we had Cuban sandwiches at the walk-up window that were quite good and so large that I could only finish half. This might be an option for folks who don’t want to commit to a sit-down meal but want a taste of Cuba and a nice FAB.

  12. AJ says:

    Kristina — That’s awesome!! Wish I’d gotten to meet you!! :-) I was the weirdo wandering around taking a zillion pictures! ;-) Thanks for your review as well; there was a bit of weirdness with our bill (as it seems is often the case with this place). I’ll have to try your recommendations next time!

    Shayne — It was a BEAR trying to choose an entree! We took care of the app problem by just ordering the sampler, but I practically had to throw a dart to choose a main. I ended up letting the server choose for me between the shredded meat dishes. ;-) Would love to hear your review of this place when you go.

    Richard — Oh NO!!! Talk about a heartbreaking experience. I’ve had a couple of those with different restaurants, and it is HARD to put them back on the list. Our server seemed a bit flighty as well, but he pulled it together overall. Thanks for your review, though — good to know!

    Venessa — I know!! My tamale experience is seriously lacking. :-) Maybe the next time I’m in Houston or San Antonio I’ll indulge!

    Sarai — My guess on this one is the earlier the better as far as getting in and having a semi-quiet meal. The Bongo Combo was a good size and it could feed two people as a shared entree, but not three. Let me know what you think when you go!

    Sandra — Great point, Sandra!!

  13. Joyce says:

    We’ve had hit or miss meals at Bongo’s…when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad…..! when I look back, I think that the very good meals WERE during the busy times…weekends. maybe a different chef? Cuban is wonderful food when cooked right, however, I seldom find a restaurant that hits all the points. Just as a side note…I agree with you on the Cuban tamal. (my mother in law’s pronunciation) I’m not fond of mush nor polenta and this reminds me of that. next time we go, I will try the pollo asada…Thank you!

  14. AJ says:

    Joyce — Thanks for the review and suggestions!!

  15. debra t says:

    There sure doesn’t look like much for a vegetarian.

  16. catherine says:

    A good tamale should NOT taste like a mouthful of grainy cornmeal. That’s why I never went back to Bongos. I should for the drinks though.

  17. AJ says:

    Catherine — YES! Drinks!!!!!

  18. Jacky says:

    Just wanted to correct you on the fact that Cuban food is not meant to be spicy. That’s why the food here is not. It is also not mixed with African dishes. How I know? I am Cuban! Bongos also does not do Cuban food any justice. The Bongos here in Miami is a lot better! My husband and I desperately want to like Bongos and keep returning to see if the food gets better and it doesn’t.

  19. mary ko says:

    Bongos was my first experience with Cuban food and I was quite pleased with it. After several trips to Downtown Disney, I finally went to Bongos at a slow time (3pm) and did not need a reservation or long wait for a table which is common in the evening. The very personable and efficient waiter made several suggestions and I settled on the shredded chicken and my friend had the tilapia. Both were very good and definitely would order them again. The fried sweet plantains were sensational but forget the plain white rice.
    The decor is quite interesting and a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening (which I suspect may be a lot of fun)

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