Rooted in Cuban traditions, the fledgling neighborhood bar has garnered national recognition and won a loyal local following.
-story by Reda Wigle
photos by Ellis Anderson
A votive image of Manolito himself looked on from a corner of the small bar and blessed the rum poured in his honor. The six-stool bar is framed by a dark staircase that leads to a loft with a handful of tables. Black and white photos line the walls. Above the street-facing windows, a Cuban flag hangs alongside the state banner of Louisiana.
Manolito, the bar’s namesake - given name, Manuel Carbajo Aguiar - was a legend in the world of Cuban bartending. Aguiar perfected and poured drinks at Havana’s famed El Floridita bar, the place that birthed the daiquiri and Ernest Hemingway’s affinity for it.
Chris Hannah, Nick Detrich and Konrad Kantor, Manolito’s three owners, made multiple pilgrimages to Havana learning the trade and art of bartending from Manolito and the other cantineros that embody it. In Cuba, home to the oldest bartender’s guild in the world, bartending is not a mere vocation but a calling.
“Cuban bartenders and musicians are essentially ambassadors,” Kantor says. “Here, there’s sometimes the attitude towards people in the service industry of ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ There, bartending is respected as a career. We are trying to do it justice by having as much reverence and respect for Cuban bartenders and the trade as possible.”
That reverence comes through in the way Manolito bartenders are trained. In a salute to their Cuban forebearers, they are constantly straw-tasting their drinks for flavor and consistency. Technique is paramount. Kantor says the way Cuban drinks are made is more important than what’s going in them.
The formidable Manolito front-of-house staff is all female, and the bar has yet to lose a single employee since opening last year.
Cuban food is a natural and necessary complement to the bar program, Kantor believes. “New Orleans is more of a food city than a cocktail city. This city just revolves around food, and Manolito is one of the places where it makes sense to drink the cocktails with the food because people aren’t usually drinking wine in Cuba. They’re drinking cocktails. It’s obvious. Give me a daiquiri and a Cuban sandwich.”
Any day, Konrad Kantor, any day.
To keep our booze company, my friend and I ordered ropa vieja arepas and the eponymous Cuban sandwich. For me, the Cuban sandwich has historically been consumed, laden with godless amounts of mayonnaise, as an antidote rather than accompaniment to alcohol. The Manolito version, made with Oaxacan cheese, is perfectly pressed and packs a satisfying crunch.
The simple menu, designed by Coquette chef de cuisine Cesar Nuñez and implemented by Anthony Hampton, also includes ceviche and black bean soup.
New Orleans is “the number one city for shitty frozen drinks,” Kantor says, so serving blended drinks has posed its challenges. Part of the Manolito mission: Get patrons to reconsider blended drinks.
History is to blame for the bad reputation of blended, says Kantor, whose business card wryly reads “blender jockey.”
“Somewhere along the line, frozen daiquiris were being made using cheaper ingredients, canned juice, things that had a tendency to become more artificial tasting. Because of that, people are a little reluctant to go frozen. They’ll say ‘anything that isn’t blended.’”
Manolito also serves stirred cocktails, or more accurately, thrown cocktails. Poured in a long stream from one cup to another, the spectacle of preparation aerates the drink as it entertains the customer.
“It adds flair but it’s not just showing off,” Kantor explains. “Throwing the drink controls the dilution and gives it a different texture. It’s time consuming but we’re not willing to compromise.”
That refusal to compromise has earned Manolito countless accolades in the cocktail world, including a heralded spot on Esquire magazine’s 2019 list of the best bars in America.
Kantor’s favorite drink on the menu? The classic daiquiri.
Pushed to put classics aside, Kantor admits Manolito’s Jazz Daiquiri tops his list.
“It has ground coffee beans, dark rum, a little crème de cacao and lime. The reason why I love that drink is it challenges preconceived notions of what drinks should taste like; it’s a tart coffee drink.”
Manolito’s Jazz Daiquiri has a similar flavor profile to a cocktail called "Hitler's Jitters." The name was coined to amuse American oilmen visiting Venezuela. But the Jazz Daiquiri's roots actually reach back further to a Cuban drink called the Mulata Daiquiri.
For Kantor, the balance of tradition and evolution comes in the form of variations like the seasonal, sugar-rimmed King Cake Daiquiri. “We have fun and get creative but we wouldn’t want to do any drinks that a cantinero would be upset by. We respect the trade.”
Also mindful of atmosphere, Kantor, who moonlights as a heavy metal music journalist, curated the thousands of hours of predominately Cuban songs -- heavy on the Celia Cruz -- that make up Manolito’s playlist.
“Music is a big part of it for me. I always want to be listening to this music while I’m trying to represent something.”
Kantor’s teenage introduction to cocktails came by way of a smuggled Ramos Gin Fizz at the Hotel Monteleone. Thus the French Quarter was the first and only choice for the Manolito location.
“The French Quarter is special to all of us. It wasn’t just a business decision [to locate Manolito there]. There’s a lot of passion for the neighborhood and we all have a long history in the French Quarter. It feels like home.”
At home is precisely how the team at Manolito aims to make locals feel. “We’re a local bar. We get a lot of tourists but over 60 percent of our patrons are local. We want to be a neighborhood bar because the French Quarter is a neighborhood. We believe in the Quarter. We don’t want to be a tourist bar.”
Manolito sits on Dumaine street, named forthe illegitimate son of the monarch Louis XIV, perhaps an apt location for a team that has drawn criticism for preparing and promoting food and drinks without direct Cuban heritage.
Though not obvious heirs to the legacy of the Cuban cocktail, the French Quarter bartenders strive to honor Manolito with every drink they pour, blend or throw.
“We are paying homage to a person,” Kantor says. “We’re not trying to be a Cuban bar; we’re trying to be Manolito’s bar.”
Lent be damned, we’ll drink to that.