At the corner of Fourth Street and Trenton Avenue, Tulsans can soon sample the complex Cuban flavors of matriarch Oneida Martinez’s Miami kitchen.
"My grandma spoiled us rotten, man—with food," said Anthony "Tony" Martinez, owner of Mangos Cuban Cafe. "Abuela would say, ‘You guys are so skinny! I’m gonna cook you some arroz y frijoles negro.’"
With each bite at Mangos, Tony wants guests to feel like they’re in his hometown of Miami, Florida, where more than half of the population is Cuban. "This food brings back memories … of my grandma who used to cook us one of these dishes every day," Tony said.
Though Oneida has since passed, her culinary legacy lives on in the five generations that have succeeded her. Many of them are now hard at work at Mangos. "This is a family operation," Tony said. "This food is gonna be cooked with a lot of love and pride." All hands were on deck as the family staff prepared for the cafe’s fast-approaching grand opening. Tony’s sister Ivonne might have had the most challenging task. When asked what she was helping with, she passionately answered: "Bringin’ that flavor!"
Despite the relative emptiness of the small, colorful restaurant, an element of familial chaos ran throughout my interview with the Martinez family. In fast-paced Spanglish, Tony rattled off some answers directly. Others were crowdsourced as the conversation ping-ponged between family members in the back kitchen—Tony, in Spanish: "Hey, what makes pan Cubano so good?" Renzo, his brother-in-law, in English: "It’s got a little lard." Tony, in English: "Yeah, yeah—the lard," he said with a knowing nod.
When it came time to try their croquetas de jamón—savory, deep-fried bombs of ham and seasoned béchamel—Ivonne gave me a pointer: "Put half on a cracker and smush it, just like that."
And so, with the crunch of a Twinkie-shaped croqueta, I began to relax, feeling a part of the gang. Mangos’ food is all kinds of comfort, a cause to throw caution and calories to the wind. I happily tucked into each subsequent dish that was presented.
I started with the Cubano, the star of the show. You will not find a more authentic Cuban sandwich in town. Pressed between buttered traditional Cuban bread from a bakery in St. Petersburg are layers of ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and what Tony calls "the key and success to a Cuban sandwich": the pork. "We roast and marinate our pork for eight hours. … You have to do it right, you know?"
Speaking of doing it right: It should be noted that the proper preparation of a Cubano is hotly contested between the rival cities of Miami and Tampa, with the latter’s version including salami. For the record, para que sepas, Mangos’ recipe is strictly Miamian. When asked why they don’t include the salami, Renzo said simply, "We’re not Italian!"
Next up was ropa vieja—a robust dish of red and green bell peppers, onions, and braised shredded beef. When asked which item on the full menu would satisfy the more adventurous, Tony did not hesitate. "It’s the flavor of this meal right here that just gets you," he said. This dish is served with white rice, which is great for drizzling the slightly spicy, very flavorful tomato-wine sauce.
Bistec palomilla is another winner at Mangos. It is a thin, marinated steak garnished with thinly-cut fried onions and served with rice and black beans. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: The steak is almost as thin as fruit leather (about a quarter-inch) and the presentation is simple, if not stark. Yet with that first bite came the now-familiar mouth-punch of Cuban seasonings—this time stronger on the garlic and lime. Cuban food is "more about the flavor and less about the spicy/hot thing," Ivonne said.
A café Cubano can intercept the food coma brought on by a heavy Cuban meal. Not widely available in Tulsa, Cuban coffee is distinct for its sugar being whipped into a foamy top layer. Thankfully, it’s made each morning at Mangos. Pilon coffee canisters surround an espresso machine adorned with demitasse cups and saucers bearing the Cuban flag, all creating the effect of a shrine to the caffeinated Motherland.
Other beverage offerings include Cuban sodas from Miami such as Jupiña pineapple and Materva yerba mate (a strongly caffeinated tea that is on its own earthy and bitter, but as a caramel-creamy soda it’s much more palatable); a variety of mojitos made with fresh fruits, including the traditional lime, as well as strawberry and mango; wine varietals showcasing Chile, Argentina, and Spain; and beers such as the citrusy "Havana Affair" pilsner brewed at Stonecloud Brewing in Oklahoma City, alongside brews of Latin origin.
"It’s been so hard to get the right ingredients to make it authentic. There’s nothing in Tulsa like the real Miami flavor," Tony said. "But opening a restaurant is not easy. You have to bring it."