evt-latinkitchen

B.J. Hernandez, best known for her three Havana Cafe restaurants, which have all closed, is back in business in Mesa with Latin Kitchen. 

A sea of auto-body shops and used-car lots defines the aging strip of West Broadway Road in Mesa.

With a fledgling Cuba-theme restaurant in the middle of it all, one might expect fins on all those cars. Where are the ’57 Cadillacs and Chevys that you see in Havana? Did Fidel repossess them all?

B.J. Hernandez appreciates both the culture and the food of Cuba, and she’s done a marvelous job bringing it to Latin Kitchen, her most-recent restaurant venture, along with new business partner Elisa Nolan, a fellow veteran of the Valley restaurant industry.

Hernandez, who lives in south Scottsdale, is best-known for her three Havana Café restaurants, which drew rave critical acclaim and built a sizable clientele across the Valley for 28 years. They’ve all closed now for a variety of reasons, most relating to rising lease rates and declining profit margins.

Hernandez wasn’t on the sideline long.

“I looked for a year and I couldn’t find anything right for me either size-wise or location-wise or money-wise, so I just kind of gave up,” she said. “I told everybody when I left Havana Café I was only going to pay for a storage unit for 12 months.

“I’m a crazy person. I get bored very easily. I always have to have a project.”

After getting a tip about this space, she soon had a catering business up and running there before Latin Kitchen, 540 W. Broadway Road, Suite 101, debuted last May. Fans of Havana Café will recognize the menu, although it has been expanded to include fare from other Latin American countries. The ambience also is different.

“That’s why I didn’t want to bring it back as Havana Café,” Hernandez said. “I had to have a different name.”

Ordering is done at the counter. At this point, it is not open nightly for dinner, although it has a full bar and Hernandez and Nolan do special events on Fridays and Saturdays and private parties other nights. They still cater, as well.

It is designed to attract a lunch crowd.

“This is a business neighborhood. It’s good for lunch. It’s priced for lunch,” Hernandez said. “We do good business. That’s the way we want to do it.

“I don’t think anyone will feel that portions are insufficient. We give you an $8 plate or a $10 plate with steak, shrimp or fish. The most expensive item on the menu is only $11. We do wraps, bowls, gluten free, low-carb. We try to address everybody’s dietary desires. And we cook it any way you want it.”

Latin Kitchen has signed up with food-delivery services.

Havana Café fans who’ve found their way to Latin Kitchen say the quality remains top tier. Hernandez, a self-described Jew from New York, says the secret is simple to her ability to continue to knock Cuban fare out of the park: “I married a Cuban.”

More to the point, she married a Cuban who was in the food industry.

She remains head chef and her kitchen is populated with her old Havana Café staff.

“They all said they’d come back when I found a place and here they are,” she said.

Hernandez and Nolan strive to serve their cuisine Havana Café style: with warm hospitality, family recipes and authentic ingredients served with heart and soul.

“We’ve stayed in business because we keep it very authentic,” Hernandez said. “I still have things flown in from New York or Florida if I can’t get them here.”

She also understands her clientele. About half is Latino and they appreciate the authenticity. About half is Anglo. There is a balance to satisfying both. Take her presentation of papas rellenas, the most-popular type of croquettes in Latin America, for example.

“I understand how Anglos like to eat,” she said. “I knew that in a real Cuban restaurant if I wanted papas rellenas I would not get sauce with it. When I opened the restaurant in 1989, every chef was putting a million sauces on the plate, which I objected to because I never knew what flavor I was getting.

“Yet I was wondering how the American public was going to embrace this. Were they just going to see this thing, this potato that was fried with bread crumbs on the outside with nothing on it, thinking it was good? No, we eat our potatoes or other things with gravy on them. So, I decided to make a sauce that would mimic the ingredients in a Cuban kitchen. We have a cilantro-lime sauce with it. It’s a little bit creamy so it’s like having mashed potatoes with gravy, or biscuits and gravy.”

Then there are her Cuban sandwiches. “My Cuban sandwiches are really outstanding because my late husband lived in Cuba when they were invented by a chef in Cuba,” Hernandez said. “The chef wanted to make something that would be attractive to the American tourist, so he created the Cuban sandwich. He used different meats from different countries. He used roasted pork because that was the meat of Cuba.

“And then he used a serrano or prosciutto ham, a cured ham, and Italian bologna called mortadella, and a good imported Swiss cheese. Then, of course, the pickle that has the mojo garlic sauce on it when it’s finished. And it’s pressed, and that’s the true Cuban sandwich.”

At Latin Kitchen, Hernandez quickly reconnected with clients for whom she’d done catering through the years. Among them are Cactus League baseball teams, with their multitude of Latin American players.

Through the end of January, Latin Kitchen is teaming with Tempe-based Murder and a Meal Comedy Dinner Theatre at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for dinner and a show. Tickets are available at murderandameal.com as well as Goldstar and Groupon.

Hernandez met Nolan a few years ago. While Nolan was in the restaurant business, she had never owned her own place.

“She reminds me of one of my own daughters,” Hernandez said. “My job is to mentor her and get this going.”

Nolan and Hernandez envision Latin Kitchen as a gathering place with Latin-theme entertainment and special dinners served at tables family style.

Hernandez envisions a Havana Night, with decorations, fedoras, cigar roller and, of course, Cuban food. Her dream is to put together a culinary tour of Cuba.

“We want this to be a place where people gather for Latin-related events,” Hernandez said. “We have a nice patio. We have a full bar. We can do stuff. I want music. I want dancing. I want this to be fun.”

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