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Just down the block from longtime Old City nightclub-slash-restaurant Cuba Libre, a less ostentatious version of Cuban cuisine is now available to Philadelphians.
Taking up a modest corner space on one of the alleyways between Arch and Market streets, Home Cuban Cafe is like a Latin American take on a deli, serving all-day breakfast, pulled-to-order coffee, fresh-made croquettes, and other Cuban staples — including some that are plant-based.
Opened in the former home of Fezziwig’s Sweet Shop at 17 N. 3rd St. this October, the cafe is already attracting a slew of regulars, said co-owner Danae Peraza.
“We really owe our success to the neighborhood. People have been really good to us since even before we opened. People would come by, knock on the door, and ask what we were up to,” Peraza told Billy Penn. “Now, our across-the-street neighbors and the people who work around here are our regulars and come in every day.”
Pereza, 33, runs the restaurant with her cousin, Dairys Mayoral, 42, who said she owned a Cuban restaurant in Naples, Florida, for 21 years before selling it this summer when her daughter made plans to attend college in Philadelphia. The pair switch off on kitchen duties, with occasional help from their mother, who traveled north with them.
“I guess you could say cooking is in our family’s blood,” said Pereza. “Our grandfather was a baker in Cuba.”
The cousins both immigrated to the United States from Cuba in their teens. Mayoral came over with her parents during the height of the 1994 Cuban Raft Exodus, and Pereza’s family arrived in 2000 via a U.S. diversity visa lottery — a program she said her father had applied to every year since 1990.
Their Philly restaurant takes inspiration from growing up near Havana, which Pereza believes “looks kind of like Old City.” The inside is both cozy and airy, with a few leather chairs and coffee tables, exposed brick, and plenty of leafy house plants. Stepping inside feels a lot like stepping inside someone’s just-furnished house — which is the point, the cousins said.
“From the beginning, the goal was to provide a sense of community and a feeling of home,” said Pereza. “Dairys came up with that idea because [Latino] culture, not just Cuban culture, is very family-oriented.”
The menu includes a variety of traditional Cuban cuisine. Highlights include a classic Cubano sandwich, made with thick slices of flaky bread, juicy cuts of ham, and shredded pork; and the suite of side dishes: tostones, or crispy twice-fried green plantains, and yuca con mojo, a root vegetable boiled and served with caramelized onions and a garlicky sauce.
Home Cuban Cafe also offers rotating lunch specials. There’s usually some variation of marinated pork with congri, or Cuban-style white rice and black beans, Mayoral said, because that’s what customers like best. Most dishes can be made vegan, too — a relatively uncommon option, since a lot of Cuban cooking revolves around pork.
Small updates like that are especially important to Mayoral and Pereza, who described their clientele so far as a reflection of Old City: white, and full of tourists. They haven’t yet welcomed many Latinos, let alone Cubans.
“We’re trying to introduce the community to our culture little by little because at first, we noticed that the people around here didn’t really know what our food was,” said Pereza. “For example, people here didn’t know what yuca was, and that was new to us since we’re from Florida. Everyone knows what yuca is over there.”
Center City has a dearth of authentic Cuban restaurants. Existing options meld Cuban food with dishes from across Mexico, Latin America, and the United States to create a Pan-Latino style of cuisine — think Mixto, Bar Bonbon, Bodega Bar and Kitchen, and even Cuba Libre.
Mayoral and Pereza said it’s been difficult to find local suppliers for things they consider staples, like pastelitos (stuffed pastries) and croquettes (ham and cheese rolls coated in breadcrumbs). So the pair started making most of their baked goods in-house, using recipes from their grandmother.
“I’d call supermarkets and see that they sold Goya products, so I’d think to myself ‘Oh, they have to know what croquettes are,’” said Pereza. “Then we’d get there and say, ‘Do you have stuff for croquettes?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, we have tostones,’ which aren’t the same. So we ended up making the croquettes ourselves with a home recipe.”
The duo is already looking towards expansion, with plans for a sister restaurant to open in January 2022. Though the exact location is under wraps, it’s set to be a sit-down BYOB in Old City that takes inspiration from Trinidad, a coastal town in Cuba known for its colorful architecture and lush tobacco fields.
It’s all part of the cousins’ grand plan, Mayoral said: “Open one restaurant, and then keep growing Cuban roots in this community.”