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Shake It Up, Baby: Cuban Cocktail Is Making a Splash

Angelenos are cooling off with tall glasses of rum-lime \o7 mojitos\f7 .

August 12, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adios, apple martini. A tropical rum cocktail is the new "it" drink in the city of trends. Sure, the City of Angels still loves you, apple of our eye, but mojitos, with their deceptively tasty minty wallop, are so very this year.

Oceanside in Venice or Santa Monica? Hillside on the Sunset Strip? Downtown during happy hour? Fine dining in Beverly Hills, Los Feliz or Pasadena? The mojito mambo is there. Why, poolside at the W Hotel in Westwood, where Kim Noonan mixes a wicked mojito , the bar itself is called Mojito.

"They're very refreshing, sweet and tangy at the same time, and they're potent," says Tanya Cohen, a producer who is catching up on her screenplay reading at the W's pool. I love them. It's the perfect drink to have by the pool on a Sunday afternoon."

The mojito (pronounced mo-hee-toe), Cuba's most famous cocktail, has become the No. 1 summer drink--and not just in the Southland. Wildly popular in Miami for years, the mojito is now being served up from New York to Portland, in the classic style--the way Ernest Hemingway drank it in Havana--or with contemporary twists for distinction. Essentially a rum and lime spritzer, bartenders across L.A. are substituting vodka, cognac and a variety of fruit flavors to make their own mark on the drink.

"Every once in a while, a drink comes along that captures the flavor of the city or season," says David Organisak, a bartender at Spago Beverly Hills, who strolled into Xiomara in Old Town Pasadena last week to taste the restaurant's infamous rum and sugarcane juice concoction. " Mojitos do both. They're the perfect summer drink. I'm getting more and more requests for them at the bar. I thought I'd come in here and see if I'm doing it right."

Xiomara Ardolina has been serving mojito s at her "nuevo Latino" restaurant for six years, long before the craze for one of Papa's favorite drinks hit L.A. "I noticed on a trip to Miami that this was the biggest drink being served out there, and I decided I had to bring it here," Ardolina said.

"But now almost everywhere you go you can find a mojito . I think it has to do with the Cuban craze. Just like Cuban music is so popular, the food and the drinks are very hot. As a people, we were practically put to sleep for 40 years. But we Cubans are so outgoing and lively that it was only a matter of time before people noticed our music, our food and everything beautiful about our culture."

The drink owes its unique flavor to an herb in the spearmint family called yerbabuena, which is less sweet than mint. The original mojito is a blend of muddled yerbabuena sprigs (or mint leaves), fresh lime juice and sugar, mixed with light rum, ice cubes, club soda and bitters. Ardolina's "Mambo" mojito excludes bitters and replaces sugar with fresh sugarcane juice, called guarapo in Cuba, which she presses at the bar with a special machine. Guarapo juice, according to a Cuban countryside legend, which Ardolina gladly shares, has the same lasting effect as Viagra.

"I can attest to that," says Manuel Remon, a senior vice president at Banco Popular in Commerce, who enjoyed a mojito during his lunch at Xiomara last week. "In Cuba, I drank guarapo all the time, and I had five children in three years."

"All my old Cuban customers tell me that," says Ardolina, who, with her brother Osvaldo Rodriguez, serves 100 to 110 mojito s on weekend nights. Their mojito s are garnished with a sugarcane stick and served in tall glasses that slant 10 degrees and confuse even sober customers.

"I'm on my first mojito, and already the glass looks crooked," says Cuba native Jose Carlos Arco, a vice president and manager at Banco Popular. "If you drink two more, it will straighten up," Ardolina says and laughs at the joke she has obviously told before.

"The color is what makes the drink," Rodriguez says. "When we first pour it, the colors just look beautiful."

"Don't underestimate the aesthetics of it," agrees Bryan Fuller, who manages the poolside bar at the Standard Hotel on the Sunset Strip. "The mojito pleases anyone who wants something a little sweet but with a little bit of a kick. But the ingredients give it this allure. I don't know, whoever invented it sure knew what they were doing."

Originally called the Draque in the 19th century, the drink, which was named after Sir Francis Drake, was made with aguardiente, a rough cane-juice liquor distilled by field workers. Later, it was upgraded to include refined rum and became a bar staple, almost the national cocktail. It was renamed mojito , likely after another Cuban staple, a heavily used marinade called mojo .

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