Warmth radiates from the authentic food, personal hospitality and generous spirt inside the sunshiny-bright Latin American and Cuban restaurant.
IF YOU’VE DRIVEN north on Lake City Way from Interstate 5, you’ve probably seen the top of the Latin American and Cuban restaurant Mojito behind a blackberry-cane-covered chain-link fence. It’s painted such a bright sunshine-yellow that it practically glows. But the warmth it radiates comes from inside, where owner Luam Wersom somehow manages to make every customer feel like his favorite, despite the fact that the place is almost always packed.
Although Wersom has been the sole owner less than a year, he knows every customer because he’s been there for all of Mojito’s 17 years. He was even involved during construction, painting and making the tables that still fill the dining room. He joined the team as a dishwasher and worked his way up, doing food prep, becoming a cook, then the chef, until he was offered the opportunity to become a part-owner. Over the years, he’s had a few business partners, but in February, he bought out his last one. Wersom beams, “So now I’m the sole owner. From the dishwasher!”
The food at Mojito is so authentic that Wersom caters for the Latin players on visiting baseball teams when they come to play the Mariners. But Wersom isn’t Latin American, although he does speak Spanish. He was born in Ethiopia (he also speaks Amharic) to Eritrean parents (he speaks Tigrinya, too), and spent four years in a refugee camp in Greece (where he learned to speak Greek) on his way to the United States.
The menu at Mojito is authentic because, “It just came together,” Wersom says. “It was created throughout the years by so many different employees, customers and friends, and from traveling.”
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Wersom has visited Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, “to be true to the recipes.”
Every Sunday, he makes Sancocho, a rich, vegetable-laden oxtail and chicken soup. “Everyone says, ‘Save me one, save me one,’ and I will sell 50 bowls, and I haven’t made the soup yet,” he says.
His menu includes Venezuelan Pabellon (a shredded beef and tomato dish), Tortilla Española, grilled Pollo a la Parilla and Congri (Cuban rice and beans). My favorite, Vaca Frita, was introduced because Wersom once had a waitress from Cuba, and her father wanted the dish so much, he bought Wersom cookbooks.
Wersom radiates gratitude when he talks about Seattle, his wife and daughter, his siblings and his parents. He easily credits the restaurant’s success to his customers, neighbors, friends, employees, co-workers and even his landlord (“He’s been a blessing to me,” he says). As he’s learned to run the whole business on his own, he has relied on help and advice from many people, and it’s clear he takes nothing for granted and feels lucky to be part of such a supportive community.
In return, Wersom is generous: He has donated auction packages to The Moyer Foundation, cooked for Mary’s Place, roasted turkeys for the homeless for many Thanksgivings and teamed up with King County Housing Authority to cook for kids in low-income housing (particularly meaningful to him because his family lived in subsidized housing upon moving to Seattle). He has a reputation for being willing to help anyone in any way he can. “My community has been supporting me here for 18 years, so it’s not fair to not give back.”
“I just feel like, no matter how tough you have it, you have to do something for others,” Wersom says. “I know I can’t save the world, but if everybody did a little bit, it becomes a bowl of rice.”
If that’s not a saying, it should be.