When Orlando Vega moved from Miami to New Orleans five years ago, he wasn’t exactly planning on planting his Cuban roots in the Mississippi mud. But an unfortunate combination of a disappointing job and equal servings of homesickness and financial necessity pushed him to start Congreso Cubano, a Cuban pop-up restaurant, together with two friends—Charles Miller and Richard Ostry—in 2014. On a recent evening at Wayward Owl Brewing Company, they sold out of food before this editor, hungry for Rabo de Toro (oxtail braised in white wine with almonds and chilies, served over purple mash) and Flor de Plátano (plantain blossom with savory mint, fried shallots and toasted nuts in citrus vinaigrette), had a chance to get there. Better luck was had the following week at Barrel Proof, where they were serving up traditional Ropa Vieja (braised and shredded steak), along with fried plantains, chickpea stew and a tangy green papaya salad with oyster leaf and bird’s eye chilis.
This Jazz Fest, Congreso Cubano will be serving traditional Cuban dishes at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion all seven days. There will be Ropa Vieja, of course, and also black beans (Frijoles Negros), fried plantains (Tostones) and Café con Leche ice pops. Charles Miller, who describes his role in the trio as “looking out for pitfalls,” is busy figuring out how not to run out of food as their modest pop-up now will be serving thousands of customers, all day every day.
“The only thing we’re allowed to run out of is ice pops,” he says.
Richard Ostry notes that their shared experience running a pop-up in different environments for various crowds—be it serving bar snacks, a catered breakfast, a backyard barbecue or a plated dinner at a wedding reception—has brought a sense of confidence in their own flexibility.
“We test maybe three–four different versions of each dish before deciding what’s best,” he says. “Maybe this tosta should have a chorizo spread, or maybe it’s better with homemade, fresh cheese. Then maybe we top that with fresh oregano or fried sage or charred apple. As a pop-up, we get a chance to try it all out.”
As to how Congreso Cubano landed their exclusive Jazz Fest “gig,” Orlando Vega remembers how a quick bite at Barrel Proof led to a question over email, which then led to a contract.
“The menu we’ll be serving is straight out of my grandmother’s playbook,” he says. “This means primarily Cuban or Caribbean food—African mixed with Spanish and French, and Asian influences as well. Here in New Orleans, our food is remixed with those influences again.”
Both their Ropa Vieja and their black beans are cooked with sofrito—the Cuban holy trinity of onion, bell pepper and garlic, which is sautéed down with cumin and oregano before adding tomato and red wine.
“When I came to New Orleans, I was struck by how much of a Cuban city this is and how little people know about it,” Vega remarks. “It’s not just the streets and the architecture and the food. When I look up it’s like looking at postcards from Havana.”