After completing an “intense” 15-month culinary education a few years ago, Abby Vargas-Salazar wanted to open an up-scale restaurant spotlighting Caribbean culinary traditions such as the use of plantains as well as sofrito and coconut sauces.
Vargas-Salazar also sought to create a menu and ambiance that expressed her “eat healthy, live longer, stay younger” philosophy, a theme reflective of the Dominican Republic native’s devotion to holistic medicine.
The result was the debut in 2015 of Mojo Nuevo Latino Cuisine at 1812 East Main Street. This east-end restaurant, which the owner describes as the city’s only Dominican fine-dining experience, casts its spell through Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Spanish dishes, served in the softly lit dining room.
While Mojo is a relatively new resident of Waterbury’s restaurant community, Vargas-Salazar isn’t. She and her husband Juan Salazar Sr. have operated La Cazuela Restaurant on West Main Street for many years after they arrived in the Brass City 20 years ago. Salazar continues to run his downtown eatery.
Mojo’s cuisine and ambiance are very much reflective of Vargas-Salazar’s background and interests. “I designed everything,” she said.
On the menu, the owner’s preferences are conveyed through the use of fragrant jasmine rice from Thailand, dishes garnished with edible orchids, a Mojo marinade sauce she created and sells, and an alkaline bottled water processed through an expensive ionizer.
Mojo serves more than a dozen tapas (appetizer) selections, two ceviche dishes, and salads and eight entreés. Throughout the menu are gluten-free dishes, appetizers, salads, and entrees. “We don’t use any flour with gluten,” said Vargas-Salazar who is a vegan.
The entreés offer a choice of fish, shrimp, steak, chicken and vegan plates ranging in price from $12 for chicharron de pollo (fried chicken chunks with tostones) to $26 for churrasco, a grilled skirt steak topped with chimichurri sauce and served with yuca fries and jasmine rice. The pescado frito, red snapper with tostones, is a market price item.
The skirt steak is the most popular entreé of the restaurant’s diners, who come from Waterbury and many nearby towns such as Meriden and New Britain and are mostly non-Latinos according to Vargas-Salazar.
The number two choice is the mofongo camarones Samana consisting of mashed garlic plantains with shrimp in a home-style coconut red sauce. Samana is a northeastern Dominican Republic region. Vargas-Salazar was born and lived in the northern part of the Caribbean island.
The restaurant’s upscale Latino ambitions are communicated through. amenities such as the cloth towels in the restroom.
A Dominican flag greets visitors to a dining room that is overseen by artistic renditions of the restaurant’s name and the New York City skyline. The latter represents Vargas-Salazar’s background. After coming to the United States with her family at the age of 10, she grew up in Manhattan where her father operated a bodega.
Vargas-Salazar’s cooking style, with its emphasis on dishes made from scratch and total avoidance of artificial ingredients, was influenced by her mother who used herbs and vegetables harvested from a “little farm” in the family’s backyard. “She did not go to the supermarket, said Vargas-Salazar recalls.
While Vargas-Salazar has created the menu and occasionally prepares food, Mojo’s chef is Leonel Mojica, a Dominican trained in Barcelona, Spain
Mojo offers a kid’s menu with cheeseburger and chicken tenders entrees, family combo dishes, picadera (party) plates, and daily all-day specials that are available for takeout and lunch at $8.95.
The beverages include fruit drinks, soda, the house bottled water and drinks from the bar.
There is a fully-licensed bar where patrons can sit and partake of a variety of liquors and beers as well as pick from a wine list which includes varieties from Chile, Argentina, and Spain. There is a happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. featuring wine, margaritas and the house mojito which is made with Dominican rum.
Running Mojos is only one entry in Vargas-Salazar’s extensive resumé. While raising three children, a daughter now 27 and two boys, one 19 at the University of Connecticut and the other at Sacred Heart High School, she worked with her husband at La Cazuela and studied culinary arts and holistic medicine.
Vargas-Salazar has developed a line of products that are available at the restaurant. In addition, she is finishing up a holistic medicine book. “I love to do research,” she said, describing her book as a manual to educate people on how to avoid getting sick.
To relax, Vargas-Salazar says she enjoys travel and visits the Dominican Republican five times a year where the family has property and where she does missionary work as a holistic professional.
The Waterbury resident also finds time to work out a gym regularly and says proudly, “I am a voter.”
Mojo Nuevo Latino Cuisine is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Every menu item is available for takeout or delivery via Grubhub and Ubereats. Mojo is available for private parties and does catering. Parking is on local streets.
Sazón de Connecticut features Hispanic/Latino cuisine, eateries in Connecticut. If you would like your restaurant, personal story considered for a future Sazón segment…email us at Info@CTLatinoNews.com