Ambra Meda meets up with Ruben Perez of Yaya’s Cuban Café in Orlando for a chat about Cuban comfort food, sweets and coffee.
By Ambra Meda
As I walk on the doorstep of Yaya’s Cuban Bakery and Cafe’, in Orlando, I recall the slogan I read on their flyer: “Can you smell the bread?”.
Well, I don’t know if what inebriates me is bread or something else, but it certainly smells delicious! It’s a modest “hole in the wall” kind of place, but the size is not representative of the quality of its food.
I am determined to experiment this exotic dish, made with fried plantain, mashed together with garlic and pork cracklings. Dessert must wait.
“I know I want to try mofongo… but I am not sure what to pair with it”. The man behind the bank is anything but confused. “I’ve just finished shooting a video about our Ropa Vieja. You should definitely try that”. “Wait a minute. A video?” “Yes, for Yaya’s 101, our You Tube web series that highlights our recipes.” After chatting for a while, I am acquainted with the basics of Cuban cuisine.
My wellspring of learning, Ruben Perez, not only has owned YaYa’s with his three brothers since 1991, but he grew up plunged in the secrets of South American cooking. ” Don Pepe, my grandfather, ran a cafeteria in Puerto Padre, Cuba. When my father and uncle moved to New York City in the 50’s, to work as chefs, they brought his recipes and traditions with them, and handed down to us, building a strong family oriented atmosphere.”
While I talk to Ruben, in the kitchen they’re preparing my Mofongo from scratch. “Everything we do here is homemade,” he says when my eyes wide open in front of my lunch. Despite the stereophonic containers that characterize the place as a fast food eatery, the meal is carefully arranged.
I cut a slice out of my dome-shaped Mofongo, still sizzling and intensively redolent of garlic, and I pour some chicken broth over it. It might not the prettiest thing you have ever seen, but the taste makes up for it.
The plantain flavor is not overpowering as I expected, but it matches the other ingredients creating a tasty amalgam of flavors, well blended in a very firm mixture.
“That’s how plantain tastes like when it’s green – explains Ruben -. As it gets yellow and ripe it becomes sweeter”.
If Mofongo already convinced me, the meat is what definitely catches me. My Ropa Vieja, stewed beef that has been slowly cooked for four hours in a stock spiced with cumin, oregano, celery, bay leaves and white pepper, is fantastic.
As Ruben tells me, the preparation of the dish is long but easy: “When the beef is wonderfully tender, we let it chill a little bit, shred it and let it simmer in a blended garlic seasoning enriched with onions, tomato paste, green and red peppers, until the broth reduces.”
My Frijoles Negros Soup is a classic black bean chowder poured over white rice and sprinkled with fresh onions. Simple and appetizing, it comes with a slice of sweet, buttered Cuban bread, that, as well as all the other baking, is done in house from scratch. I am tempted to order their “Mayorca Sweet Egg Bread”, but eventually the pastry display gets the best of me.
The tiny Tres Leches bites that glisten behind the glass, soaked with coconut and condensed milk and glazed with dulce de leche syrup, are delectable, but the flaky pastries are the best. As “Quesito” meets my taste buds, it’s love at first bite. This crispy, sugar-coated treat stuffed with cream cheese is truly amazing.
The crunchy bittersweet caramel that forms on the surface well pairs the slightly salty flavor of the filling. Although its size is more than enough, I crave for more… “Why don’t you try the ‘Guava‘ instead?” Ruben wisely suggests. “We hand make the fruit jelly filling….”. Sold. The tartness of this tropical jam and the sweetness of the sugarcane covered dough are scrumptious.
After such a great lunch, an espresso is mandatory. “You want coffee? We roast it and grind it ourselves here!” Ruben never ceases to amaze me. “
“Smell this,” he tells me stretching a handful of dark, shiny coffee beans towards me. Inebriating. “Do you like it?” “Of course!” “It’s Zaza Cuban Roast.”
In a flesh, the beans are turned into powder and pressed into the coffee machine dispenser.
Ruben lets my espresso run down slowly, drop by drop. I take a sip: strong, intense. Amazing as the experience I have just had.
Yaya’s Cuban Cafe & Bakery, 632 Hewet Drive, Orlando, FL www.yayascubancafe.com
It is often said that Italians don’t eat to live, but live to eat. And to Ambra, philosophizing about food is no different than discussing art. She grew up as a devoted lover of all things Italian, from pumpkin gnocchi to pistachio gelato. After moving to the United States she discovered the pleasures of a new world of food. She eats, travels and writes for Still Served Warm.