At the Chef’s Table

Jorge Zamorano of Banana Café

Banana Café’s Jorge Zamorano, at home in his kitchen, preps the limes for his family mojito recipe, a drink he’s been making for decades.

A man of many talents, Jorge Zamorano, owner of the much-loved Banana Café and Piano Bar, started honing hospitality skills at age seven. “My Cuban grandfather gardened all the time. There was a daily after-school ritual where he would take my hand and lead me on a tour of the family’s garden. He’d show me what he’d accomplished there that day, tending the bananas, plantains, mangoes, and flowers. We’d pick mint from the garden and he would say, ‘Fix me a mojito and I will let you light my cigar.’ I’d wrap chunks of ice in a towel and crush it with a mallet and then make the drink.” 

A Caribbean Childhood

Zamorano was Cuban born, but the family moved to Puerto Rico shortly after he was born. With an affinity for the visual arts, he enrolled in classes as a child. “Since I was 10 my mom took me to art lessons. She always supported my love of the arts and we frequently visited museums, we always had lots of art books around,” says Zamorano.

His paternal grandparents lived with Zamorano and his parents and siblings, and you could always find an active kitchen, his grandmother preparing the next meal of the day. Living in a fairly traditional household, his father sold wholesale gas and major appliances while his mom taught for a short time. “My grandmother was the cook. She prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner – her kitchen was sacred.” While Zamorano says he was a picky eater, he was often told to sit in the kitchen with his grandmother as she cooked. “If I didn’t finish my meal I was forced to observe her cooking. I learned how to prepare her dishes by watching everything she did.”

When it was time for Zamorano to enter college he attended Loyola in New Orleans and studied business. “Starting with my first semester I worked in Commander’s Palace. I fell in love with the food business.” He stayed in New Orleans for a number of years.

Coming to DC

When Zamorano moved to DC in 1986 he worked at the Intercontinental and Henley Park hotels, and while he aimed for and attained a food and beverage director position, his parents were hoping he would study art in Italy. “While I thought I should be in business I never stopped painting. Finally one day I called my parents and told them my heart wasn’t in it, that I wanted to leave the hotel business. They had been waiting a long time to hear those words.”

He had been living on Capitol Hill when Banana Café (formerly the Lone Star Cantina) was run by Jaime Vargas, who opened the restaurant on 8th Street in 1994. “Jaime invited me over to see his new restaurant. We had a coffee together and he asked me to help out at the restaurant. Over time I started selling my art work from the restaurant, too.” 

A few years later the restaurant was going to be sold and Zamorano thought it was a great opportunity to jump into the business. “I suggested that he sell me half of the restaurant and see where we were at after six months,” says Zamorano.  “It all worked out and we shifted the menu from just Tex-Mex, adding Cuban and Puerto Rican specials.” He inherited the line cook, Walter Guiterrez, who is still working with him today as the chef. Zamorano had always loved piano bars and at one point leveraged his car for the grand piano that now is the focal point of the piano bar at Banana Café. 

During the time that Zamorano was getting involved with the restaurant he also met Darren Love, the manager who is now his life partner. Love brought him to beautiful Cumberland, Md. (near where he grew up), and for a time Zamorano operated a couple of restaurants there as well. The two enjoy traveling, and when they have free time spend it in Rehoboth, cooking meals with and for their friends. “My dad is very social,” he remarks, “and we always had lots of big parties. We’d always make snacks of cheese, crackers, sardines, and olives stuffed with anchovies.” It’s a tradition he still enjoys today.

The consummate host, Zamorano easily prepares a mojito – squeezing the limes, muddling the mint, adding some Puerto Rican rum (he says any type will do and favors a coconut rum) with a splash of soda water. While he enjoys mojitos, Zamorano has started his own tradition after he takes his nightly walk with their cocker spaniels. “I love to walk them around the neighborhood and then sit outside under a tree with a bloody Mary.”

Zamorano Family Arroz con Pollo

You’ll notice a base of onions, bell peppers and garlic, also known as sofrito – the Holy Trinity of Latin-Caribbean cooking. Similar to the French mirepoix (a mix of chopped celery, onions, and carrots), sofrito is aromatic and savory. With origins in Spanish cuisine it can include variations used as a sauce, as a base for beans, rice, and stews and as a condiment.

You’ll also enjoy the coveted pegado, or crusty coating, at the bottom of the pot after you’ve prepared the chicken and rice. Zamorano prepared this dish in a caldero, a versatile, cast aluminum cooking vessel (like a casserole dish, with rounded edge, manufactured by a company called Imusa) with great heat distribution. The natural finish seasons over time, and versions that have been in the family for many years darken as they age.

Jorge Zamorano’s version of arroz con pollo includes a garnish of white asparagus, a nod to his mom, who always cooked with them.

3 chicken legs, with skin
4 chicken thighs, with skin
½ cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 large red bell pepper (stem, ribs, and seeds removed), chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
½ cup bacon, chopped
½ cup olives stuffed with pimiento, sliced
¼ cup capers (optional)
3 cups white rice (medium-sized grain)
1 can tomato sauce (8 ounces or 1 cup)
1 bottle of beer
3 cups of chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 package of sazon con culantro y achiote (a seasoning easily found at your local supermarket. Goya is a popular brand. Annatto, or achiote, derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, gives a slightly peppery, nutty, and sweet flavor and yellow-orange color.)
2 teaspoons ground oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ cup green peas (canned), drained (for garnish)
1 jar white asparagus spears, drained (optional, for garnish)

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to large frying pan over medium high heat. Trim the chicken pieces (cut off excess fat) and season with salt, pepper, and cumin; brown chicken on both sides. Work in batches so you don’t crowd the chicken. Remove chicken to a platter and set aside. Remove excess oil and add bacon; stir for a couple of minutes. Add chopped onion, red pepper, and keep stirring. Sauté for a few minutes and when the onions turn translucent add the garlic. Add rice and spices; stir for a couple of minutes to brown and the rice begins to be coated. 

Add the bottle of beer (something similar to Negra Modelo or your beer of choice), chicken broth, and tomato sauce. Stir for a minute and add bay leaves, capers, and olives. Stir well, return chicken to pot to make sure the chicken pieces are submerged under the broth so they will finish cooking. 

Bring everything to a boil and then reduce to low heat, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Serve on a platter, add green peas as garnish as well as white asparagus spears (optional). Serve with a side dish of fried plantains.

Banana Café, 500 8th St. SE, 202-543-5906.

Zamorano’s arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), his family’s easy, go-to recipe for delicious comfort food.
The preparation of Zamorano’s arroz con pollo includes a garnish of white asparagus, an ingredient his mother always included with one of his favorite family meals.

Annette Nielsen, food editor of the Hill Rag, has been engaged in food, farming, and sustainability issues for nearly two decades. Her experience includes catering, coordinating artisanal and farm-based food events and teaching cooking classes. She’s the editor of two Adirondack Life cookbooks and is at work on an Eastern Market cookbook. Nielsen heads up Kitchen Cabinet Events, a culinary farm-to-fork-inspired event business. A native of the Adirondacks, she’s a long-time resident of both New York City and the District, and returned to DC from Washington County, N.Y.