Soul de Cuba Cafe founder and owner Jesus Puerto found a way to combine his Cuban-American and African-American roots with his life’s work in the non-profit world. The profits from the restaurant, and a line of all-natural Cuban food products, go back to the community through his own charity.
Puerto, who came to New Haven to work for the Hole in the Wall Gang camps, learned from the master of the model, Paul Newman. He could see how for-profit businesses can support non-profit activities. Now living in Hawaii and operating a second Soul de Cuba Cafe restaurant in Honolulu, Puerto launched the non-profit arm of his business, the Cubanakoa Foundation.
Still in its infancy, the foundation is supporting farming projects between Hawaii and Cuba, as well as translating into Fijian and Samoan a children’s book on a Hawaiian surfing legend Eddie Aikau.
New Haven’s Soul de Cuba Cafe keeps a steady course under the sure hand of New Havener Michael Iamele, who met Puerto in 2004 when Puerto was shopping in Iamele’s family’s hardware store while renovating the restaurant space.
Puerto, from Ybor City, FL, wanted to showcase his family’s food history. His mother is African American and Native American, his father is African American and Cuban American. At first Puerto blended soul food and Cuban food to make Cuban soul food. The Cafe’s first menu had separate Cuban and soul food entries. The Cuban pulled ahead in popularity and the restaurant’s focus stayed with the Caribbean island.
Yet, West African influence is palpable throughout the restaurant. The decor highlights both Puerto’s family photos, and paintings of African spirits or “orishas” by Luis Molina, a Cuban artist now living in Miami.
But it’s the food where it all comes together. Iamele says of the always popular Fricase de Pollo, “We’ve had Syrian families come in, Morroccan families, saying they make the same dish in their house. It’s a universal dish. That’s probably how it came to Cuba. The influences on Cuban cuisine are Middle Eastern, West African, Spanish, the indigenous people of Cuba, and Chinese food. It’s this unique mix over hundreds of years.” Their chef, Adis Romero, helped open the restaurant in 2005. When Adis came from Guantanamo to the U.S. in 1998, she immediately went to work in restaurants working her way up from dishwasher to chef. She interprets the Puerto family recipes expertly.
Soul de Cuba Cafe has launched the first line of all-natural Cuban products sold in North America. Three versions (traditional, honey, and spicy) of a marinade called mojo, salad dressings, hot sauces and salsas are sold at both restaurants and in 500 stores in North America including Whole Foods, Publix, and Stop & Shop. Even Cuba is buying mojo from them. “Once we start making profit off the sauce line,” Iamele says, “that will be one of the best ways to give back.”
Restaurant Website: http://www.souldecuba.com/index.php
• The Detes: 283 Crown St., New Haven. 203-498-2822 (203-498-CUBA) Open seven days. Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
• Price Range: Appetizers $9-19, sandwiches (bocadillos) available until 5 pm $10-14, entrees (platillos principales) $15- 24, dessert $5-7, cocktails average $9.
• Style of Food: Cuban soul food.
• Favorite dishes: Fricase de Pollo, Cubano sandwich, Lechon Asado
• Vegetarian: Some.
• Drinks: Gotta love those Cuban cocktails like sangria and mojitos.
• Take out: yes
• Outdoor seating: no
• Special events/catering: Yes.
• Products: Soul de Cuba has a line of all-natural mojos (marinades), salad dressings, hot sauces and salsas for sale at the restaurant and nationwide in stores like the Elm City Market and Whole Foods.