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Cuban cuisine pops up in NOLA

Presented by My House NOLA

Founder of Congresso Cubano Orly Vega

Founder of Congresso Cubano Orly Vega

When was the last time you ate Cuban food in New Orleans?

Congreso Cubano, a new Bywater pop-up that concentrates on traditional Cuban cuisine and weaves in other Latino influences here and there, is filling New Orleans’ unfilled niche for Cuban cuisine. Named after Cubano word congresso, meaning “community,” and the Bywater street one of its founders lives on, the culinary brainchild of locals Orlando “Orly” Vega and Ricky Ostry, Congreso Cubnao, began as a means for Vega to satiate his craving for the delicious Cuban food he grew up eating in Miami.

Vega moved from Miami in 2012 and began working at Creole Pub Crawl, a culinary tour company, where he quickly learned about the New Orleans culinary scene, cooking traditional Cuban meals as merely a personal hobby. Soon after, Vega recognized a developing interest in Latino cuisine -- spearheaded by the Bazan family, owners of La Boca and Rio Mar -- within the city and realized he could turn his hobby and longing for Cuban food into an entrepreneurial venture.  A fan of Pizza Speakeasy, channelling his culinary energy into a pop-up seemed the logical route to Vega.

Congresso Cubano's croquettas are fried to order.

Congreso Cubano's tostones are fried to order.

The pair say they wanted their food to be informal and accessible to a large demographic, so they decided their menu would be comprised of affordable traditional Latino street foods: tostones, croquettas, empanadas. The recipes hail from Vega’s grandmother’s recipes book and include contemporary fusion twists added by Ostry, dissolving the barriers between Cuban and Cajun/Creole cuisines.

Vega says his favorite thing to cook is ropa vieja, a beef based stew, because it involves an intensive and slow process.that eventually culminates in a pot of delayed gratification, full of deep flavors and scents. Slow processes are necessary to produce the high-quality, authentic Cubano offerings. “It’s [Cuban cooking] just like jazz,” Vega points out, “you’ve got to learn the basics before you can improvise.”

But Vega and Ostry don’t just want to bring Cuban flavors to New Orleans, they want to furnish the city with an authentic Latino dining experience. Latino dining has a deelpy social aspect to it, Vega emphasizes, recollecting long morning espressos in Miami spent over dominos and standing over a grill for hours and smoking cigars. Subsequently, Congreso pop-ups feature live Latino music and drink specials to cultivate a lively dining experience.

Beginning next week, in addition to their Cuban breakfast pop-up at Solo Espresso, a coffee bar that offers Latin beans and espresso, the Congreso team will regularly pop-up at Casa Borrega Friday nights, offering food, a mojito and caipirinha bar, and live Latin jazz in the Central City restaurant’s courtyard.

The Congreso duo looks looks forward to expanding their pop-up, hopefully cultivating a catering service. The team is excited to connect food back to New Orleans’ international reputation, open-mindedness, and culinary curiosity.

Check back Friday for an authentic tostones recipe from the Congreso team.