Sometimes success is a simply a matter of divine intervention. By the end of last year, Wajiro's restaurant on 127th Avenue and SW Eighth Street was a shadow of its former self. Serendipitously, through a series of seemingly inconsequential events, Otto and Sonia De La Torre took ownership of Wajiro's two months ago and have transformed the restaurant into a popular local eatery once again.
The couple made an offer when the restaurant went up for sale late last year. Sonia explains that rather than stressing about whether or not the offer would be accepted, she left it up to a higher authority, telling Otto, "If it's meant to be, it will be. It's up to God."
Apparently, God approved and the couple, along with their two adult sons, David and Jonathan, made immediate changes. One of which also seemed a bit, let's say, celestial. Chef Jose Angel Perez, who had consulted on the menu for Jennifer Lopez's now defunct Los Angeles restaurant, Madre's, as well as Glendale, California's Sabor, just showed up at Wajiro's doorstep one day.
As Otto tells it, "He was just standing there, holding a black briefcase, and he told me, 'give me a week to tell you what's wrong in the kitchen and then give me two months to fix it'."
Guided by pure instinct, Otto hired Perez on the spot and diners are rejoicing. Perez has made several changes, not only to the dishes offered, but more importantly, to how they are prepared, all while maintaining a Latin-inspired menu. And he fulfilled his promise to restore order to the kitchen.
We watched Perez in action and we can only say, "Cuban Chef Ramsey." He describes his penchant for order, "You see my hands? Everyone in the kitchen must always have clean hands even when wearing gloves. A chef must always be clean. I teach my kitchen helpers that. I tell them, 'If you see me holding a cleaning rag, you better be holding two.'"
Not ones to argue, we decided it was time to eat and ordered the Wajiro Platter ($14.95) as an appetizer, which comes with a corn tamale, fried pork and chicken breast chunks, croquettas, papas rellena, and stuffed yucca. Everything was superb, particularly the chunks and the papas rellena, a cute twist on the classic Cuban stuffed potato ball - these are teeny tiny. A word of advice, only order the Wajiro Platter as an appetizer if you're with at least three other people, if not you'll be too full to eat anything else.
During our visit, a tourist visiting from South Carolina came over and professed to Otto after she was finished with her dinner, "I travel a lot; I've been around the world. This is the best pork dish I have ever had."
She was talking about the Masas de Puerco Wajiro ($9.95). Fried pork chunks are a staple at most Cuban restaurants, but at Wajiro's they are a culinary feat. Seasoned to perfection and so tender they practically fall apart, each savory chunk is a work of art. Served with caramelized onions and two side dishes, such as rice and fried plantains, the masas de puerco make a hearty meal for the discriminating eater with a traditional palate.
Another authentic dish is the cazuela de mariscos ($18.95 - $36), a tomato-based seafood stew chock full of shrimp, fish, and lobster, traditionally eaten with white rice and tostones aka fried green plantains.
As authentic as the Cuban dishes are, Perez has put his creative stamp on the new dishes, such as the Wajiyaki, pork chunks with a teriyaki glaze, served with yellow rice and fresh tomatoes topped with herbs, garlic, and cheese. There's also the Mar Habana Wajiro's ($19.95), which translates to "Havana Sea" but should translate to "Cuban Comfort Food." The Mar Habana consists of a layer of mashed potatoes, topped with a snapper filet, covered with shrimp and a creamy, cheese sauce. Yes, it's as good as it sounds.
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The Creative/Cuban hybrid that is Wajiro's menu stems from Chef Perez, but the name of the restaurant might have foretold of the creative cuisine to come. A guajiro is a Cuban redneck, a country bumpkin of you will. During the Cuban-Spanish war, when Cuba liberated itself from Spanish rule, the Cubans were "war heroes." So, the term wa-jiro was born, celebrating both the Cuban countryside and the brave soldiers who gave Cuba its independence from Spain.
Feeling the need to fortify ourselves, we've been back for lunch and dinner several times. The friendly and efficient service coupled with Wajiro's delectable edibles, will make you a believer. During the week, Wajiro's is an ideal spot for locals to have a low-key, yet delicious meal. On weekends the atmosphere becomes a bit livelier, with live music on Friday and Saturday nights. If you want really good food and plenty of it, Wajiro's is your place.
Oh, and by the way -- don't leave without having the cortadito especial -- a delightful concoction of Cuban coffee with evaporated and condensed milk. Much like Wajiro's current manifestation, the cortadito especial is heavenly.