If you are a mojito virgin, you must have one at Versailles. But don't expect a bar. You'll have to order food in order to enjoy an adult beverage at this iconic Cuban restaurant in the heart of Miami.
I have great friends. On some days, they just wake up and say, "hey, wonder who makes the best mojito? Let's spend the afternoon finding out!"
And so the first Mojito March was born, during which some friends and I boarded Jim Winter's "Special Ed Short Bus" (you may know Jim of Nikon Miami Blog) for an afternoon of cocktail shenanigans at Tarpon Bend, Versailles, Catch of the Day and Ortanique.
We started around 3ish and didn't end until 9ish. A true mojito olympics indeed, requiring savvy pacing and endurance. Our goal: to see which one of the four establishments served the best version of a mojito, which is basically light rum served over muddled mint, lime and sugar (or simple syrup), topped with a spritz of club soda.
Drinks were fruitier and rather light at Tarpon Bend. One of our attendees said "I could spend a whole afternoon here, but not at Versailles." The sell: less crowds and noise.
Tarpon Bend was a great place to start. With a daily happy hour (2 for 1) starting at 3 PM, their drinks were rather fruity and light, reminding me of the kind of beverage you might enjoy at a ritzy spa, with mojito combinations featuring fresh muddled watermelon, for example. To be honest, their traditional mojitos paled in comparison to the ones we would have later, so I would call Tarpon Bend the right kind of place to go when you want mickey mouse refreshment -- a lush's retreat for hydration during a hangover -- which would be just right on a Saturday afternoon with no crowds on Miracle Mile.
A rather sweet coconut mojito held the imagination of my socia @lizawalton, who quickly declared it tasted like "ladies lying out in the sun." I asked her: "Should we call it the Coppertone, complete with a tanning butler spreading oil on my ass?" And thus, I think, we have a new favorite drink for Sex and the Beach, though I'm no fan of flavored rums. (I can't believe they even brought out the Dragonberry. Sorry Bacardi, but I'm a rum purist.)
The waitresses at Versailles wear awesome polyester retro uniforms.
Versailles, the iconic, world-famous Cuban restaurant on 8th street, passed muster with a stiff cocktail that would put hair in even in the chest of Tony Montana. And you should expect "stiff" around here -- the soft curves of women who have indulged way too much in flan are flanked by hard-line politics and protests just outdoors, all washed down with rum and strong coffee. This is a bustling place, full of locals and tourists, ready to ignite at a moment's notice while digging into your rice and beans like you would at your Cuban abuela's house.
Versailles gets bonus points for garnishing the drink with a chunk of sugar cane, too, which is always fun to suck on. This was better than Tarpon Bend's drinks, which were so pulpy, it was impossible to suck anything through the straw unless you were a porn star equipped with a Dyson vacuum. And besides, every cocktail should come with something phallic other than a plastic straw to put in one's mouth. Remember, drinking isn't just about taste, it's about sensual things like sucking and swallowing, right?
Not to mention that sugar cane itself evokes the raw history of rum, slavery, wealth and blood-sucking greed that was the sugar industry in the evolution of the Caribbean, the United States and the rest of the New World. Yeah, suck on that, baby. You're tasting a little bit of history when you have a mojito at Versailles.
Order mojitos with the "fried combination" platter -- fried tuber roots of every kind, including yuca, as well as meat-filled empanadas and croquetas, served with a garlicky cilantro aioli -- and you have the perfect Cuba Carbs 101 for your friends who fly in from Iowa.
While you're there, don't forget to spread rumors about Castro being dead:
CATCH OF THE DAY
Catch of the Day, a casual sports bar and seafood restaurant near the airport, served mojitos in tall glasses. While tasty and refreshing, the use of sugar actually made some sips rather granular, which made me think I had ordered rum with muddled sheet rock. Simple syrup is always better. Not that it was bad, mind you. I just don't like grainy stuff in my drinks -- you know, kind of like how tapioca reminds you of sperm. If you go to Catch of the Day, try their special mango mojito, which was fruity but not heavy like nectar.
Of course, great company is the most important ingredient of any cocktail! The Mojito March crew toasting at Catch of the Day.
We even attempted to scientifically register our mojito research.
Here we enjoyed some delicious filled tostones with shrimp creole, which are usually not on the menu. This unpretentious place, like a Cubanaso version of Tarpon Bend (see, there's taxidermy art, stuffed fish on the wall, too) is worth its weight in happy hour though, which runs from 3 - 7 PM everyday on the lord's calendar.
Ortanique got it down. And it's not just because it was our last stop of the evening.
Our day ended at Ortanique, probably the fanciest place where we imbibed cane spirits, and not surprisingly, as they served the best and most expensive mojito at about $10 a glass, which is still cheaper than a thimble full of whore spit in South Beach. Ortanique's secret? They skip muddling and rip their mint leaves, letting the natural botanical oils seep into the cocktail without turning the leaves black. (I've never seen mint turn black though ... have you?) They also have the right amount of fizz from club soda, which I found lacking in the other mojitos.
All in all, each location had something great to offer, though if you're going to judge the proverbial cocktail itself, Ortanique takes the cake.
SPECIAL ED SHORT BUS
Our adventure was possible in part thanks to Jim Winters, the creative brain behind Nikon Miami Blog and Bulldog Neon Signs, as well as denizen of one of Miami's most unique art bunkers -- that's the only name I can come up with to describe his studio. Our fearless driver made it safe for us to indulge.
A gentle giant, Jim Winters stands his ground next to the short bus. @lizawalton peeks through the window.
I could not, of course, finish this blog post without paying tribute to Ines, Miami's original mojito expert, whom unfortunately could not grace us with her presence on this day. As a result, I felt obligated to do a Miamism-style review, out of deep reverence to the mojito queen herself!
More pictures from our mojito adventures on Flickr.
And speaking of mojitos, don't forget the Rum Renaissance Festival coming up this April.