This Submission Courtesy of Sylvia G. Vega
They say you can’t go home again, but you never really leave home, either. Home never quite leaves you—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. What is comfort food, if not the memories of home and family bursting in flavor on your taste buds?
Born in Havana and raised by immigrant parents, I grew up in Miami, Florida, a truly bilingual town full of sound and color. I woke up for school with the aroma of café con leche (espresso with milk) in the air, palm tree branches swaying in the breeze, and the rhythm of salsa (the music) in my step. When my husband and I moved to Arizona years ago, the only salsa I knew was the kind you dance to, and tortilla meant a Spanish omelette with bell peppers and diced potatoes.
These days, I’m hooked on Sonoran desert fare: steaming flour tortillas, mouth-watering fajitas, refried beans, and melted cheddar. I need my regular Mexican fix.
As a transplanted Cuban-American, though, I’m always craving home cooking. And home cooking means arroz con frijoles (white rice and beans) and platanitos fritos (fried plantains). While vacationing back home this summer, I received a text message, “Cuban restaurant opened!” What’s the big deal, I thought, wrongly assuming it was a Florida relative who was texting. When I realized the message was from an Arizona friend, I was ecstatic.
And rightly so. The new restaurant is Feli’s Cuban Kitchen, and it adds yet more flavor to our varied Southwestern fare. A family affair from the bottom up, it is owned and run by chef Pedro Martinez, his girlfriend Rebecca Bleam, his sister Honay Martinez, and his parents, head chef Felicitas (for whom the restaurant is named) and Pedro Martinez. As a weekly fixture at Feli’s, I had the opportunity to interview Pedro.
SV: You always acknowledge your mom, Feli, as the master chef. How did she become interested in cooking?
PM: Feli’s mom, Berta Rosado, was an amazing chef. Berta, my grandmother, worked as a private chef for American investors before Castro was in power in Cuba. By watching her mom cook, Feli became increasingly fascinated by cooking.
SV: Who influenced her growing up?
PM: Her mom, Berta, above all. She was a great chef, and my mom learned to love cooking by watching her mother’s passion in la cocina, the kitchen.
SV: What’s her favorite dish, and what’s yours?
PM: Hers is arroz con pollo, yellow rice with chicken. Mine is fricase de puerco, pork stew.
SV: Your parents seem to be special people. Tell me a little about them.
PM: My mom and dad are my best friends. Even though they didn’t really want to leave California, they came over to help their son—me—open a restaurant. Without them, I would never have been able to open Feli’s Cuban Kitchen. They work with me side by side every day, and their dedication and all they’ve done for me is greatly appreciated.
SV: We’re in an area of the country where people often read Hispanic food as Mexican, and Cuban food is quite distinct. What do you say to those who might expect hot chiles and tortillas?
PM: I make very authentic Cuban meals and have no plans of integrating Mexican fusion into my dishes. A lot of people come into the restaurant and ask for tortillas, hot sauce, and spiciness, and we just explain that Cuban food is very different from Mexican food. I always tell people that when Filiberto’s has fried plantains, I will have tortillas—haha! Cuban food and Mexican food are very different, and part of our job is to educate the public when they come in. By the way, I LOVE Mexican food!
SV: There are variations in Mexican food, depending on the region of the country the cook is from. I’ve heard they do serve maduros (fried sweet plantains) in Acapulco. Are there similar variations in Cuban cuisine?
PM: Yes, but not as much as with Mexican food.
SV: You pride yourself in authenticity. Are all of your dishes straight from the island, or have some gone through some Cuban-American adaptations?
PM: All of my dishes are straight from the island. My mother cooks the same way she did when I was growing up in Cuba. No changes, no alterations.
SV: As a transplanted Cuban-American, I am so grateful for Feli’s ! How on earth did you land in Casa Grande?
PM: I’ve lived in Arizona for five years now, three years in Casa Grande. Four years ago, I came to visit a friend here. I drove around and loved the town. Growing up in L.A., I wanted to get away from the city madness and find a quiet town to live in.
SV: As a Cubanita, I love plantains in all forms. But when I buy them at the grocery store, they are green and I have to wait quite a bit for them to ripen to that delicious sweetness. How come you have such great maduros all the time?
PM: As a Cubanito, I have connections—haha! My plantains are originally from Ecuador, and are shipped weekly to me from L.A. We also have to let them ripen a bit, just like you. With our supplier, we get them in two stages: green, and yellow for the maduros.
SV: Feli’s Cuban Kitchen is a dream come true. Now that you’re living your dream, what’s it like to be around food 24/7?
PM: Well, having been an Aerospace machinist for many years, I really never thought there was so much hard work in opening a restaurant. But I love it! At first it was very enticing to be around food constantly, with all of the smells around you. But after a while, you get used to it. When I really want to eat, I ask my mom to prepare something for me. You know what? It tastes better, every time!
Earlier this year, I lost both my parents, Papi in January, and Mami in April. When I order yuca (cassava), Papi’s favorite, I feel his presence. And with every taste of guava (check out Feli’s desserts!), I know Mami is savoring every bite right along with me.
There is a familiar saying in Spanish: barriga llena, corazon contento—full tummy, happy heart. When I visit Feli’s, my tummy and heart are full to the brim—I know yours will be, too.
Visit Feli’s for a taste of the Caribbean at:
1609 E. Florence Blvd.
Open: Monday-Thursday 11:00-8:00 pm
Friday 11:00-9:00 pm
Saturday 4:00-9:00 pm