A Culinary Procurement Mission to the Carribbean 1830
A dishwasher named Eugene got me started on my mission to locate Greensboro’s version of the Cuban sandwich.
For the past couple weeks I’ve been going to the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant on Monday afternoons to help my friend Liz prepare donated food for a meal that is transported by van downtown and served on the retaining wall outside the Greensboro Public Library.
Aside from Liz, Eugene is the one person who can be counted on to help out every week. He sometimes calls himself Space Grizzly, Half Bat-Half Vampire or the Green Ranger. He’s an inveterate walker and conversationalist. In the latter pursuit he maintains a constant stream of free-associating commentary that interweaves family history, supernatural phenomena and moral self-examination.
Eugene is what people in the restaurant biz refer to as a dish dog. He is a dishwasher par excellence. And although he is always threatening to quit his volunteer job he will generally elbow the earnest young anarchist dudes out of the way when he sees them sudsing the plates with insufficient speed.
For weeks now he’s been talking about a restaurant down near the interstate that he indicated was a prospective employer. He raves about the Cuban sandwich and the great seafood of which he plans to partake in his off hours. He told me how to find it ‘— off S. Elm-Eugene Street tucked between the merged interstates 85 and 40 and the aptly named Interstate Industrial Park. The interstate and industrial park act as a DMZ between the gritty tracts of south-central Greensboro and the well-to-do suburbs that stretch down towards Pleasant Garden.
Needless to say, I was intrigued.
I got in my car and tracked down the Caribbean 1830, a pleasant one-story structure with a stone faÃ§ade, fake palm trees and a small replica of a cannon overlooking the interstate. At noon the restaurant was doing quiet business with a handful of patrons enjoying food from the buffet at booths in a dining area to the side of the front counter.
First I should say that I dined on the esteemed Cuban sandwich and enjoyed a refreshing glass of maracuila juice at the counter. Due to the language barrier the full purpose of my visit was not immediately appreciated by the proprietors of the Caribbean 1830.
The first essential element of the sandwich is the chewy, wide slabs of baguette, sliced horizontally. Then of course there’s the meat, in this case thin slices of roast pork married to the more processed pleasures of ham and complemented with slices of Colby cheese. Pieces of sweet pickle and a smear of yellow mustard complete the experience.
The two brothers who own the restaurant together, Frank and Carlos Jimenez, both took my order. The chef, Pedro de la Torre, walked past and nodded. There was a comic moment when Frank asked me what I would like to eat in Spanish and I blurted out, ‘“What?’”
I was probably more embarrassed than Frank, lacking the poise to at least fake my way through a couple sentences of Spanish to indicate my lack of fluency. I then mentioned Eugene and the cooking session at Church of the Covenant, throwing in that I wanted to write about his restaurant. Frank must have been somewhat confused when I mentioned my friendship with Eugene because shortly afterwards his wife, Georgina, came over to ask me if I was looking for a job.
I handed her my business card and explained that, no, I was a newspaper writer on the hunt for a good story about food. She explained this to Frank and Carlos, who both seemed somewhat relieved. They picked up my dishes and ushered me back to a table in the dining area.
As I ate, the two brothers and Georgina held a hasty conference in Spanish, seeming to weigh the merits of speaking to me. Finally, after concluding their deliberations, Frank indicated he was ready to talk. Georgina would translate for him.
‘“This restaurant was founded by my great-great grandfather,’” Frank says. ‘“It was originally founded in 1830. In that year Havana had a big wall around it so the pirates wouldn’t attack the city.’”
The restaurant was built on the outside of the wall near the northern gateway to Santamaria Beach. Every night at 9 p.m. the cannon from nearby Morro fort would be fired to signal that the gate was closing for the night. Even after the defensive practice was ended in 1902, Frank says the restaurant continued to close at 9.
The restaurant in Cuba hosted many distinguished American visitors, including Nat King Cole and Ernest Hemingway, before the government of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro closed it in 1962, Frank says.
‘“My family always kept the dream alive that they would have a restaurant again,’” Frank says. ‘“My grandfather became a meat cutter. My father became a bread maker and a cook. One of the things my father asked me before I left Cuba is if I could open a restaurant in honor of our ancestors.’”
The father never got to see the dream realized.
‘“He was old and he didn’t want to start a new life in a new country,’” Frank says. ‘“He died two years ago. He couldn’t see any of this, but I know he’s watching me from above.’”
Frank and Georgina Jimenez came to Greensboro as refugees in 1997, beginning new lives with the help of Lutheran Family Services.
‘“I was in prison for five years for political reasons,’” Frank says, ‘“because I was working with the American government transmitting information.’”
‘“CIA,’” Georgina adds, before Frank waves his hand to curb that line of discussion.
This is a fresh start.
The restaurant will have some Mexican and Italian specialties such as chicken fajitas and chicken parmesan, along with pizzas whose toppings run the gamut from vegetarian to ham and shrimp. But the pride of the restaurant are its Caribbean dishes, such as crocodile tail, which tastes like a cross between beef and fish, and is served with potatoes and salad. There’s also octopus tail, plantains and yucca root.
For $205 the restaurant serves a full family dinner of drowned pork that feeds 20 people, with sides of rice, black beans and yucca.
Here on the side of the interstate the restaurant will face a test to determine whether Greensboro is ready for authentic Cuban fare. But the Caribbean 1830 has some friends in high places.
Mayor Keith Holliday is scheduled to make an appearance at the restaurant’s grand opening on Friday. Frank worked in the city of Greensboro’s finance department for seven years. He put in his last day on June 29.
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.