LAKEWOOD RANCH -- When customers walk into Mojo's Real Cuban, owner Albert Myara, 61, hopes they feel as though they've entered a paladar in Little Havana. Paladares are family owned restaurants meant to give Cuban tourists a more authentic Cuban food experience rather than one at a state-run restaurant.
"We wanted it to feel comfortable and rustic," said Adam Myara, one of Albert's sons, who help run the restaurant.
Mojo's is the Bradenton-Sarasota area's first Cuban fast-casual restaurant and brings 40 years of industry experience as well as a chef who hails from Cuba. William Marquez spent his first 20 years in Cuba and lived in Miami for 18 years before moving to the Gulf Coast. As soon as Albert sent Marquez to Publix to pick up his first round of ingredients, he knew he had hired the right man.
"I could tell by the way he was shopping this guy was real," he said. "Sometimes things are just meant to happen."
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Albert also owns Ed's Tavern on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and Bogey's Restaurant and Sports Pub locations in Venice and Bradenton. When Albert first moved to Tampa from France, he dined on Cuban cuisine "all of the time." He's since lived in Lakewood Ranch about 15 years and felt there was something missing from the food scene.
"I came to Sarasota and there's really nothing like it here," Albert said. Sons, Adam, 30, and Austin, 20, helped him formulate and launch the Mojo's idea. Adam said Mojo's pro
vides a fast-casual option for travelers on State Road 70 and the north Manatee workforce.
"We knew we wanted to do fast casual; there are lots of tacos and burritos," Adam said. "So we wanted to make sure it wasn't a taco or burrito place."
Adam's wife is Cuban and he spent "lots of time" in Miami with her tasting and researching favorite Cuban dishes.
Mojo's serves Cuban favorites like the traditional hot-pressed Cuban sandwich, slow-roasted pork, sweet plantains and croquettes, a fried log of rolled-up potatoes, ham and spices. The restaurant at 11161 E. State Road 70 also provides six sauces on its mojo bar. Mojo is a spicy marinade often used in Cuban cooking. Traditional mojo is typically made with garlic, onion, orange and lime juice, oregano and cilantro. Each sauce at the mojo bar has a distinctive flavor, with some heavy on spice and others relying mostly on garlic.
"The mojo bar is a popular aspect of the restaurant," Adam said. "It adds a lot of variety."
Response from the Lakewood Ranch community already has been positive, Albert said. And by opening Mojo's, he's learned more about the community he enjoys.
"I didn't realize how big of a Cuban population there is around here," he said. Before opening the Mojo's doors about a month ago, the Myaras hired a 15-person staff.
And they recently began renovations on a Sarasota Mojo's near South Osprey Avenue and Hillview Street.
The Sarasota location will require more than the $400,000 invested into the Lakewood Ranch Mojo's because the Sarasota space was formerly a shoe store. The State Road 70 location used to be a Westshore Pizza.
Eventually, the Myaras hope to expand regionally, then statewide and nationally, if all goes to plan.
Mojo's offers takeout and dine-in services as well as catering.
Albert Myara doesn't think they'll have any trouble competing with other dine-in Cuban restaurants in the area.
"Our food is head and shoulders above, in my opinion."
Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter @jayohday.