Roberto Hernandez at Mio Restaurant

At the Chef’s Table

The vibrant colors reflected in the corn salsa ingredients are a feast for the eyes before they’re even tasted.

The popular Mio Restaurant in downtown DC, owned by restaurateur Manuel Iguina, recently announced the appointment of Roberto Hernandez as executive chef.  Hernandez, who has worked as a restaurant consultant and previously served as a guest chef at Mio, is taking the reins at the restaurant affectionately known as the “Embassy of Latin America in DC.”

“Roberto is a rising star that will add and give continuity to Mio’s mission to see Puerto Rican cuisine as a staple in the nation’s capital and in the mid-Atlantic,” says Iguina, “and we’re very proud and happy to have him as an addition to our culinary team.”

Chef Hernandez grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a city of about 200,000, filled with family, tradition and great food. “Cooking has been a family affair since I can remember – my (Cuban) grandmother would make certain lunch and dinner were prepared every day and the stove was always busy. Her fried rice would take three days to make – on the first day the pork chops and ham were cooked, the second day the rice, and on the third day these ingredients and more came together with the eggs – a real layering of flavors.” Hernandez says he also grew up eating things like oxtail and tongue, what he calls his idea of a poor man’s foie gras.  

Hernandez attended college in San Juan where he studied mechanical engineering. He cooked his way through college, but found he was happiest when he spent time in the kitchen.  “I was terrified to tell my dad that I was going to ignore my engineering training and go into the restaurant world. It turns out that my mom had already told him about my plans and he said to me, ‘So, when are we opening a restaurant?  You don’t have to chase my dream!’”

Hernandez enrolled at the Lincoln Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida and after completing his studies, he worked for a number of years in resorts and restaurants from West Palm to Miami.

“In Florida, I had a real experience of working in America, but in a very international way – you’d find so many different nationalities from French, Portugese, Brazilian, Cuban and more – and that exposed me to different cuisines. You can learn from everyone in the kitchen, from the dishwasher to the chef – they can all be great mentors.”

It was while working for Trump Mar-a-Lago as the Chef de Cuisine, that a friend asked him to consult on a hotel concept.  That work took him from Miami, on to Sweden and back to Florida. After a dozen years away from home, he returned to Puerto Rico.

“It was really important to be reconnected with family,” says Hernandez. “ It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.  A friend was looking for help with a restaurant, and it turned out that with the growth of the food culture in Puerto Rico, there was a need for this type of consulting work there.”

It was through his restaurant consulting, that Hernandez was invited to be a guest chef at Mio where Iguina, a longtime fixture in the District’s restaurant scene had been working to create an engaging and welcoming place serving authentic Puerto Rican cuisine.

“We started Puerto Rican Fridays – or Lechon Friday – in 2010 – where we roast a suckling pig,” says Iguina. The Lechon Asado Ajili Mojili y Pique del Pais is a traditional way to prepare the roast pig with a melding of Puerto Rican flavors including hot sauce, garlic, citrus and spices.  

During late spring, Hernandez was in DC consulting on Mio’s brunch menu. “I’m always drawing on taste memories from the classic dishes my grandmother would make, while combining those flavors with French techniques I learned in culinary school. The typical breakfast in Puerto Rico is different than eggs and bacon. We look for more of an island or Caribbean feel that incorporates tropical fruits like pineapple, papaya, mango – and also root vegetables like a hash with jicama and batata (sweet potato) which might be served up with poached eggs and guava or with a sofrito hollandaise,” states Hernandez. “We’re also creating the traditional Puerto Rican dumpling that’s typically made with cod or red beans.” It was after making such a good impression as a guest chef that Hernandez was invited to lead the kitchen at Mio.

At Mio, they serve a special Arabica sundried coffee grown exclusively for the restaurant in Puerto Rico. During August, the restaurant will be participating in a celebration of National Coffee Month with coffee-inspired entrees like Coffee Rubbed Beef Short Ribs with Five Chiles, Coffee Citrus Spiced Cured Salmon as well as Mio Expresso Granita and Orange Zest for dessert.  As for libations, they’ll be highlighting the owner’s special Café Colada prepared with coconut cream, fresh crushed pineapple, Puerto Rican white rum and Mio’s espresso. 

At Mio, you’ll instantly feel the warmth of the personalities here, note the vibrancy in the décor’s colors, and in the open kitchen you’ll see Roberto Hernandez at the helm with Manuel Iguina’s cohesive staff cooking up authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. Try this flavorful summer recipe from Roberto Hernandez – a great way to use the grill and keep the heat out of your kitchen.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin Over Blistered Corn Salsa

Yield: 2-3 servings
For pork tenderloin:
1 to 1 ½ pound pork tenderloin, silver skin removed
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon oregano (dried)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons achiote oil*

Mix dry ingredients and oil together; rub into tenderloin, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  If you’re cooking the tenderloin on the grill, pre-heat to medium-high heat; if using your oven, prepare in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees. Cooking times will vary on the grill, but should take 15 -20 minutes or so and the internal temperature should register 145-150 degrees at the thickest end of the tenderloin.

After tenderloin is cooked, remove from heat and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  Cut in ½-inch to 1-inch slices and serve with blistered corn salsa.

*You can make your own achiote oil.  Take annatto seeds (known as achiote in Spanish) – you can find them in the spice aisle at the supermarket – and steep about 1 tablespoon of seeds in about a half cup of olive oil; heat until they start sizzling, and keep on the heat for a minute or so. Don’t boil, as the seeds will become bitter. Remove from heat and let stand until the sizzling stops and strain out the seeds when ready to use. The oil can be stored in a lidded jar for a few days.

For Avocado Mousse:
1 whole avocado
1 garlic clove
2 tbsp olive oil
1 leaf of culantro (also known as long cilantro or Mexican cilantro) 

In a blender process the oil, herb and the garlic.  Then add avocado in chunks and blend until smooth. Set aside.

For blistered corn salsa:
4 ears of corn, shucked and using a knife, remove all corn from the cob
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 green pepper, seeded and diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
3 cloves garlic (sliced and toasted in a small pan over medium-low heat until lightly browned)
1 small bunch of cilantro, chopped fine 
juice of one lime
canola oil 
olive oil
white vinegar, to taste
salt and pepper

Gently take corn kernels off the cob and place in a large bowl; toss with a few tablespoons of canola oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Put corn in a pre-heated pan over high heat, until the corn starts popping.  Give it a shake and let it set again until it pops again. (The goal is to get nicely charred spots on the kernels.)  

Remove from heat and let it cool down.  Mix in peppers by hand. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together lime juice, a ¼ cup olive oil and a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar. Season corn and pepper mixture with dressing. Sprinkle with salt & pepper, to taste.  

Place a few slices of pork tenderloin on a bed of the blistered corn salsa. Garnish with avocado mousse and a sprinkling of freshly chopped cilantro.

Chef Roberto Hernandez seated with owner Manuel Iguina enjoying a chat in the inviting seating area at the entrance to Mio.
A focused Roberto Hernandez preps the vegetables to be used in the blistered corn salsa.
Using seasonal ingredients coaxes the maximum flavor profile for the chef’s creations.