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Guedes and family introduce flavors of Havana

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Posted: Monday, June 21, 2010 12:00 am

Erin Doty

by C-H staff writer

Alberto Guedes strolled toward the front of the living room having paused at his desk.

“Four hundred twenty emails,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

He didn’t know who they were from, and he won’t have time to check them all anytime soon.

He and his wife Miriam, are new grandparents of a five month old, and have just opened a Cuban restaurant called “La Havana” in Oconto.

The venue opened May 29, three days after their planned for-friends-only “test run” was cancelled due to the recent community tragedy of young Chris Estrada’s drowning.

“Arecely is my friend,” Miriam had said of the boy’s mother. “No one feels like celebrating, we want to be with them.”

Alberto, originally from Havana, Cuba, began his first day in the professional kitchen the morning after his last day at the Tenneco factory in Cozad.

“I knew I had to do something,” he said. “I think it’s a good option,” he continued, referring to self-employment. Not only in the restaurant business, he says, but in this economy, regardless of industry, self-employment may be the most viable option for out-of-work adults or those facing layoffs.

Alberto came to Miami from Cuba on May 31, 1996, a date he remembers clearly.

Miriam, also from a large city, grew up in San Salvador, and arrived in the US at 16.

“I cooked all my life,” Alberto says, starting at age five when he learned to make “chicharos,” a meaty split pea stew.

“Don’t ask me about cooking,” Miriam laughed. She says she left El Salvador before she learned how to cook the food of her culture, but she did learn to cook Cuban food several years ago when the couple met in Florida.

Miriam works as a paraprofessional at Pershing School, and has professional massage therapy training she completed in San Francisco years ago.

Alberto worked as an aviation engineer in Cuba, but wanted to leave because of political problems and economic problems.

“The government owns everything there,” he says, “no private business.” The government, in the case of restaurant work, even pays the cooks and waitresses.

His favorite dish is “Arroz y frijoles,” beans and rice. “But this is not Mexican food,” he says.

The spices are different, the texture, the color, the flavor, the mild nature, and the lack of spicy salsas set Cuban food apart from some Latin fare familiar to Lexington residents.

They use no frozen ingredients and make everything fresh, from scratch, daily. On the weekend, the restaurant serves seafood dishes in addition to the full menu.

They drive to Kearney to pick up overnight seafood deliveries coming from Florida.

It’s a hard commute, Alberto says, between Oconto and Lexington, when waking up at 4 a.m.

“But the work is worth it,” he added.

“By the second day,” Miriam jokes, “he said he wanted to go back to Tenneco.”

They both say working for one’s self demands a different kind of energy, intensity, and commitment.

Ample crowds have graced their doors, even in the remote town home to just over 100 people, at the crossroads of Nebraska Highways 21 and 40, halfway between Lexington and Broken Bow.

“It’s very good,” said Terry Jensen, of Nebraska State Bank and Trust Co., in Broken Bow. He enjoyed his first time there, about a week after the venue opened its doors. Seated next to him were his wife and two other Broken Bow residents.

At the larger table behind them, he said, three of the several people were also from Broken Bow.  They all nodded their heads in agreement.

Alberto says some locals come to the restaurant every day twice a day.

The décor offers a pleasing ambience, including a European-scene mural, perhaps a remnant from the coffee shop previously in the space.

Cuban posters adorn the wall, and the open kitchen issues aromatic waves of garlic and cumin.

The cappuccino machine serves up a fantastic Cuban-style espresso, where a spoon of sugar is added to the grounds before their high-pressure steaming.

Cuban-style sandwiches are steamed and then grilled, which yields a very particular taste and texture.

The checkerboard floor feels welcoming, and the atmosphere feels like family, as Stephanie Guedes, Miriam, or Alberto may be seen there on any occasion.

The couple, who decided on Oconto because Lexington’s prices were either too high or lacked equipment they wanted, decided to buy the building outright.

Most rents in Lexington they found began at $1200 per month and didn’t include restaurant fixtures.

“So we found this place on the internet by ourselves,” Miriam said, laughing again.

Alberto believes that help for small business owners and potential owners is important to the future of Lexington.

The space is small, but the food is good, and the crowd and residents seem very supportive so far.

“We even had two customers from California already,” Alberto said. They were visiting locals, and made it to La Havana. Many people from Broken Bow patronize the restaurant, as well as residents of Lexington, Sumner, Eddyville, Callaway, Cozad, and recently, Gothenburg.

The word is spreading, the couple says.

Because the existing local bar in Oconto offers a pizza special every Wednesday evening, the couple planned early on to close at 3 p.m. each Wednesday.

They didn’t want to compete with a good thing. “It’s good pizza,” Miriam said.

Every other weekday they open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. On Saturdays their hours are 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. and on Sundays, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.

Customers have become more adventurous they say, now that they understand it’s not spicy. “They even call us and order in Spanish,” Miriam says, with a smile.

Both describe Oconto residents as extremely nice and feel the community has welcomed them, and their new flavorful offerings, with open arms.

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