Family Business

Cuban Man Uses Grandfather’s Recipes To Cook

Mother and son, Rita and Reuben Hernandez, along with Michael Hernandez, own Havana Cuban Cafe and Pizzeria. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

In 2009, while Reuben Hernandez was still a high school student, he noticed the building at 212 North Main St.in Jamestown had been put up for sale. At the time Hernandez was studying criminal justice at BOCES, with law enforcement being his career goal. The location had been home to various businesses, including an Arby’s Restaurant. The thought of opening a restaurant enticed the young man.

After encouragement from his parents, Hernandez, along with his mother, Rita, and his brother, Michael, took advantage of the opportunity and purchased the building. With his parents being Cuban-born and Reuben being the first generation born in the United States, opening a Cuban restaurant seemed fitting and his paternal grandfather had been a chef with the family having many of his recipes.

Hernandez was raised in Miami, Fla. and came to Jamestown when he was 15 years old. He spoke very little English coming from an area where Spanish was nearly the primary language, so much so that his teachers taught in the language.

The family was oblivious to the fact that a famous Cuban-born actor, Desi Arnaz, and wife Lucille Ball, played a big role in the area’s tourism. They had never even heard of the iconic “I Love Lucy” television program.

“I did it to continue the family tradition, because I wanted to bring something new to Jamestown and because I am an entrepreneur. I had not seen ‘I Love Lucy.’ I was told by someone from the Lucy-Desi Museum that Desi Arnaz was Cuban.”

Cuban memorabilia displayed at Havana Cuban Cafe and Pizzeria. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

With his mother’s assistance, they planned a limited menu, and gradually added and adjusted as time went gone by. They have recently added Friday evening hours. Their biggest seller is the Cuban sandwich, which consists of pulled pork, sliced ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and mustard on freshly baked bread which is pressed in a grill. Another popular menu item is the completas or combination platter. It is made up of pork or chicken, beans, rice and fried sweet plantains. Customers like to finish their meal with a serving of Three Leches Dessert.

Hernandez says sanitation is very important to running the business. Rita Hernandez does the bulk of the cooking. Michael makes the sandwiches and Reuben preps the food and cooks the pork. The family cooks daily and doesn’t freeze food, which proved to be extremely costly when their section of North Main Street was closed for a few days. They are happy it is now open and thankful there is free on-street parking outside the restaurant’s door.

“It hasn’t been easy. When you are in food service, it is very labor intensive.”

The family has not only decorated the walls with many pictures of scenes from Cuba, maracas, and bongo drums, they have incorporated Desi Arnaz memorabilia. A very large picture of Arnaz, sent by Hernandez’ uncle, hangs just inside the door. A framed shirt from Desi’s Babalu Club is displayed at the opposite end of the cafe. The actors’ son, Desi Arnaz, Jr’s, autograph hangs near the shirt. Two TVs play a continuous loop of pictures of Cuba, while Cuban music plays in the background.

“I try to make it as authentic as I possibly can,” says the 28-year old man.

A framed pamphlet from the Havana Hilton, from before Fidel Castro’s reign and a map of the island country that has been printed on cowhide, a gift from Sheriff Jim Quattrone, hang near the serving window. A picture of his great-grandfather, also, is displayed in the area.

“One of my biggest customers are those from law enforcement and we get a lot of firemen,” says the 28-year old man after three men in uniform walk in.

Chautauqua County Deputy Sheriff Phil Lombardo, a regular customer, brought two other men for a first-time experience.

“I try to come a couple times per month. (It’s) one of the best restaurants in Jamestown,” says the deputy. “(It’s) the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had. Great customer service, they’re like family. Reuben and his mother are very nice.”

“It was great,” says Deputy Aaron Riforgiato.

Menu boards at Havana Cafe and Pizzeria. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

The third man, Deputy Brandon Jones, agreed. “It was very good. I’ll be coming here again.”

One of the restaurant’s first customers, who remains very loyal, is Brad Johnson. He remembers when the restaurant opened in 2015, when he had just returned from Miami and had been telling his brother that Jamestown needed a Cuban restaurant. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the sign as they were driving by.

“The food is amazing and the service is great. I feel like I am in Miami, where I frequent,” says Johnson.

He prefers the lechon or pulled pork variety of completas.

“I really enjoy their spicy pizza. You can’t beat it for five dollars,” he adds. “And if you want something to wake you up, try the collada or Cuban espresso. It is a spark to your fire.”

A Completas meal is ready to go. Clockwise top left-fried sweet plantains, top right-shredded chicken and bottom-yellow rice and black beans. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

He tells about how the restaurant owners granted his request to stay open for his party of eight after his daughter’s dance recital.

The business has seen some celebrities since they opened. George Carlin’s daughter stopped in when she was in Jamestown. Comedians Larry Miller and Jerry Seinfeld have stopped by, as well. Seinfeld enjoyed a completas and half of a Cuban sandwich. The crew from DIY Network’s Salvage Dawgs ordered lunch when they were filming an episode at the Jamestown Moose Lodge in early April.

“They ordered lunch two days and loved the coffee,” says Hernandez.

Many of the grandfather’s recipes are used at the business, with most offered today, being those of the elder man. Mrs. Hernandez prefers to use Goya and Riceland rice. The smoked pork shank for the bean recipe is available at Farm Fresh Foods.

Havana Cuban Cafe and Pizzeria’s number is 720-4296. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with dinner served from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday. Updates and specials may be found on their Facebook page.

Three Leches Dessert is a sweet ending to a delicious meal. Photo by Beverly Kehe-Rowland

Red Beans

1 lb red beans

4 c water

1 lb smoked pork shank with small amount of fat, cubed

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp oregano

1/4 tsp cumin

1/2 c dry white wine

1 small onion, chopped

8-oz tomato sauce

1/2 c oil

Soak dried beans overnight in water. (It is not necessary to drain red or black beans, only white beans.) Heat beans (after they have been soaked) and pork over medium heat until beans are soft. Pressure cooker may be used. While beans are cooking, cook the remaining ingredients, except for olive oil, until tender. Add to cooked beans. Add oil. Remove from burner. May stir in 1 teaspoon sugar after removing from heat.

Black Beans

1 lb black beans

4 c water

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 onion, chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

1/2 green pepper, chopped

1/2 c oil

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground red pepper

1/2 c olive oil

Soak dried beans overnight in water. (It is not necessary to drain red or black beans.) Heat pre-soaked beans over medium heat until soft. Cook remaining ingredients until tender, accept olive oil, while beans are cooking.

Yuca

2 1/2-3 lbs yuca, fresh or frozen

5 c water

1/2 tsp salt

5 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 c vinegar

1 red onion, thinly sliced

Bring water to boil. Add salt after water boils. Add yuca to boiling water and continue to boil for 2 1/2 hours, taking care to watch level of water. SautÈ onions and garlic in oil until tender. Add vinegar to cooked vegetables. Drain all but about 1/2 cup water from yuca. Stir in yuca into vegetables.

Yellow Rice

6 c white long-grain rice

6 c water

1/2 c oil

1/2 tsp salt

1 T yellow food coloring

Bring water to a boil. Add rice, oil, salt and food coloring. Bring water to a simmer, then lower heat and cook covered approximately 15 minutes or until rice is tender and water is absorbed. Remove from heat. Let sit covered for 5 minutes. Fluff with fork.

Three Leches Dessert

1 white cake mix

3 c milk

2 c evaporated milk

1 c sweetened condensed milk

1/2 tsp vanilla

Non-dairy whipped topping

Maraschino cherries

Bake cake in a greased 13-inch by 9-inch pan. Flip cake upside-down onto a tray. Poke with knife, making numerous slits. Combine milk and vanilla. Pour over cake. Cut in squares and garnish each with topping and cherry when serving.

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