I had been to New Orleans a few times before I ever moved here. During one of my travels, I stumbled across a cute little Cuban sandwich shop. The name is escaping me but I want to say it was El Libre, but don’t hold me to it. When I came back to New Orleans June 2018, this time to live, I was on a quest to find said sandwich shop. I didn’t remember the exact location but I knew the vicinity and was sure I would recognize it once I saw it again. I was with my friend, Lyric, at the time and he and I searched all the side streets until I found the place. Only it wasn’t quite the same place. It had recently changed owners and was now called Manolito’s.
Besides changes to the Menu, I was pleased to find the new owners, Nick Detrich and Chris Hannah, had made changes to the seating arrangements. Upstairs, where there was once a long bar type table with chairs stretched across the bannister, there are now several tables and chairs that can seat multiple guests. This is a wonderful benefit, especially if you desire to actually look at your dining partner during the meal. There is also a small bistro table sitting outside and a few seating options as you first walk in, near the bar/kitchen.
The establishment is small but inviting. I discovered Manolito is modeled after a bar in Havana named El Floridita, where famed Ernest Hemingway used to sit and sip cocktails. Manuel Carbajo Aguiar, also known as Manolito, spent 20 years working behind the bar at El Floridita. Manolito mentored Chris and Nick after they met in Cuba. The pair asked for and received permission from Manuel’s family to use the name Manolito for the new restaurant in New Orleans, to pay tribute to him. According to Josephine, an effervescent staple of the establishment and waitress extraordinaire, all staff members must travel to Cuba and learn how to make drinks in the appropriate Cuban style, from the Masters themselves. I won’t go into much detail about the story behind Manolito’s. There has been several stories already written about them in such a short period of time. You can simply google them to learn more. Instead, I encourage you to pay a visit in person and engage any of the staff in conversation.
My first time there, Chris was serving meals by himself and took time to talk to Lyric and myself about the new establishment. It was that type of welcoming atmosphere that pulls people in and keeps them coming back. Well, along with the great food and drinks too.
Since then, I have been back two more times and both times it was Josephine who welcomed me back, remembering me from months before. I mentioned before, the place was small and most of the seating is upstairs. Josephine is developing legs of steel, traversing up and down the staircase hundreds of times a day. This past visit I overheard her proudly tell a customer as she delivered their drink, which was filled to capacity “Lily likes to fill the drinks full and watch me go up the stairs. But she’s no match for me, I went to finishing school!” Josephine is a rare breed of person who makes you feel welcomed and missed at the same time. She can easily jump from topic to topic ranging from the menu, history of Manolito, New Orleans, and Cuba, and then some. She makes you feel as if you are her most important customer when speaking with you, yet never neglects anyone else around her.
Their menu is small but offers a variety of deliciousness. My favorite dish is Ropa Vieja Arepas. It is a national dish in Cuba, consisting of marinated shredded beef topped with vegetables in a light vinaigrette, balancing out the two flavors. Both are piled on two arepas, which is a cornmeal pancake with cheese inside. I also enjoy their shrimp ceviche, which is served with little Cuban crackers. Their dairy free coconut flan, made with coconut milk, is an excellent way to finish a meal.
I am not a big drinker and tend to stick with fruity drinks so I cannot comment on all the different varieties offered on the menu as to the taste of them. What I can speak about is their banana daiquiri and their house cocktail, the Hotel Nacional. Both are delicious and both times I didn’t make it halfway down before I started feeling the effects! Some would say I was a lightweight, but I have heard on good authority, their drinks are no slouch.
If you find yourself in the Big Easy, wandering around the French Quarter, I beseech you to walk into Manolito’s and slip away to a little bit of heaven, aka Cuba.