If you crave Arroz con gandules and other Puerto Rican street food, the options are limited in this city. It is the cuisine of Cuba, Spain, and parts of the African continent, and many of the ones that serve authentic dishes leave ambience and decor much to be desired.
As I walked into the establishment on 1110 Vermont Ave, NW, I was ushered into a modern, chic environment with a lush, zen feel. The decor was elegant and warm emblazoning the vibrant colors of the Caribbean. Latino bureaucrats were hobnobbing it up, imbibing on Piña Colada during a festive happy hour.
From the dining room, guests were provided with a stunning view of the kitchen. There was a plethora of dark wood on tables, chairs, walls, and even the ceiling. I sat at the bar and was greeted by a chatty bartender named Sofia. She recommended the mofongo con camarones which I washed down with a Spicy Pisco. The mashed plantains were creamy and sweet and the grilled shrimp was quite succulent. Closing my eyes, I gently dropped the last morsel in my mouth and mused over the spicy infusion. At that moment, a gentleman with curly hair and a short, neatly trimmed beard with flecks of gray came over and sat down.
“Hi, I’m Manuel,” he said warmly. “Welcome to the Embassy of Latin America.”
Manuel Iguina first came to D.C. as a medical student at George Washington University. He worked as a waiter at several restaurants in Georgetown, where he learned to love food and switched paths from medicine to cuisine. He helped open several restaurants such as Cafe Atlantico downtown and Ceviche in Silver Spring, MD.
Mio was a place where deals were transacted and connections made. You never knew which celebrity, official, or dignitary would walk through the doors. Justice Sotomayor has been known to enjoy the Tres Leches, and it wasn’t rare to see a Congressional staffer knocking back a Barcardi and coke.
Manuel worked the house deftly, bear-hugging regulars, cheek-pecking amigas, getting to know newcomers while keeping an eye on the busy open kitchen.
“We just hired a new Executive Chef, Roberto Hernandez from Metro Miami, who’s launched a new menu. We need new photos and a sleek website to showcase our dishes.”
“Would be honored to build Mio a snazzy website to complement your trendy decor and authentic cuisine.”
“That’s super. BTW, we’ve retained Heather Freeman to do our PR. I’ll get you in touch with her.”
“I worked with her for the opening of the Italian restaurant, Noellia. She’s passionate about her work and fun to work with. Our M.O. is to host a big event where Chef Hernandez can prepare all his favorite dishes. Then we’ll employ all the photos we take of the cuisine and customers enjoying them and feature them on your new site,” I stated enthusiastically.
I got on the phone and contacted Jason “Foodgeek” of DCFüd. “Let’s host the next Food Bloggers Happy Hour at Mio,” I suggested.
“Super, I love traditional Puerto Rican cooking and Mio’s ethnic cuisine is quite genuine.”
On the day of the event, May 8, 2014, over 30 food bloggers and foodies showed up to sample and devour calamari, ceviche and risotto with roast pig.
“When we first opened, we were serving a lot of pan-Latin cuisine. But our customers preferred Puerto Rican cuisine, and that has been our main focus,” Manuel explained.
Jessica Van Drop DeJesus of the Dining Traveler was in attendance. She was raised in Guayama, Puerto Rico, spending her elementary and middle school years on the island and still has many friends and family on the island.
As a Marine Corps officer, Jessica has traveled all over the world — visited more than fifty countries and lived in six. But she still considers Puerto Rico her favorite place on earth.
I was happy to see D’Angela “Dee” Moore from BonAppéDee. Dee is a city gal who is utterly in love with food — cooking, tasting and eating all kinds of food, from all over the world. The only thing she loves more than eating food is talking about food.
The other Jason (Shriner) from the Aubergine Chef was there to sample the cuisine. He has great cooking videos on YouTube and teaches a food writing workshop at George Mason University.
“Love the open kitchen concept,” said Jason Shriner. “I learned how to cook several cuisines at my Mom’s side so I just love watching Chef Hernandez create the meals.”
“Grateful to hear. We call it ‘La Cocina Abierta’. We hope to introduce diners to a variety of flavors from the islands.”
From Shriner, my attention turned to the “Foodgeek.”
“So how long have you been writing for DCFüd?” I asked.
“Since 2004, I started out as a writer and now I run and manage the site. We specialize in ethnic food, so I’m ecstatic to be here.”
“Super, we definitely welcome your honest opinion and publicity,” said Manuel.
“Absolutely, but didn’t Tom Sietsema award you 2.5 stars and a glowing review?” I asked.
“Yes, that was eons ago and two chefs back.”
“Does anyone even know what that sneaky WAPO food critic looks like?”
“I would recognize him in a crowded restaurant, but many restauranteurs couldn’t tell Tom Sietsema from Tom senator.”
Suddenly I saw her, getting some food and pouring a glass of water — a lovely caramel-skinned girl, young and fresh with long legs and a sweet face.
“Hi there, are you new? Who do you write for?”
“Yes, I’m Audrey. I’m not a real food blogger but I love to eat out and make new friends.”
“Well you’re saying the right things, and I sense a slight accent — are you French?”
“Well, I was born in the French West Indies and lived in Paris for a few years. You sure have a good ear for tone.”
“Well, a voice like yours stands out from all the rest.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
“Only if you promise to come to more of our events. So what do you do for fun?”
“I love art, Karaoke, dance, travel, hanging out with friends, and obviously sample great food.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place then. And since you’re a Caribbean girl, can I get you a piña colada maybe?”
“I never turn down an adult beverage. I’m beginning to like your events.”
The empanadas, bolitas, and cured salmon were cooked to perfection; the tostones were amazing, and the Don Q Rum, mind-blowing.
The event overall was a smashing success and we were able to garner lots of positive publicity. Shortly after, the website launched and Mio was my first Latin cuisine restaurant in my portfolio. This would be followed by The Cuban Corner in Rockville and soon we would be working with a wide variety of ethnic cuisines.
Mio became my favorite place to hang out, not just to eat but to meet expats, Latinos, Latinas, and locals. And Manuel was always good for a toast and a chat.
Several months later, Manuel gave me a call. I usually spoke to him several times a week, but lately, the calls became few and far between.
“I’m sad to announce that Mio is closing.”
“Whoa, you gotta be kidding Manuel. You have established a loyal customer base and all the Puerto Rican expats, lobbyists and policymakers call Mio ‘Little San Juan’.”
“Unfortunately, my landlord is doubling our rent and we’ll no longer be able to make ends meet.”
“I’m devastated, Manuel. You are my favorite client.”
“And I hope we’ll continue to stay that way. We have exciting plans for our next restaurant project to introduce the taste of Puerto Rico to the D.C. Metro area.”
“Super, can’t wait. Will you bring back Lechon Fridays?”
“Absolutamente, amigo mio y muchas caipirinhas tambien. We may be closing one door, but an exciting one will be opening soon. Stay tuned.”