As political protests in Cuba escalated over the summer, restaurateur Rene Denis and his father walked to San Francisco City Hall. People were demonstrating in the street, some showing love for a country they call home, others showing support for the residents of an island they may never visit. For Denis, seeing a group of about 20 Cuban Americans gathered sparked a deep sense of nostalgia.
His father is Cuban, and suddenly the two found themselves feeling like they were back in Miami visiting family. When the group found out Denis’s then-week-old restaurant Chao Pescao was just around the corner in the Civic Center, they followed the pair back for a meal. “They were so excited to taste the food of their country,” Denis says. “People were literally crying over the food because it reminds them of home, or their mother or grandmother who is no longer with us.”
It’s stories like these that show why Denis’s Cuban and Colombian restaurant is different from a run-of-the-mill burger shack — though San Franciscans love a burger shack. For Bay Area residents who are from or have family roots in Central and South American countries, restaurants that make the food of their childhood can also provide fortification and refuge.
San Francisco’s diversity is what brought Ana Valle, the founder and owner of Abanico Coffee Roasters, to launch her own business. Growing up in California and El Salvador, Valle had friends from places like Ethiopia and France; she doesn’t let misconceptions about her culture and home frustrate her. She says the future is bright when it comes to Salvadorean food getting the praise it deserves. “There’s so much creativity right now,” Valle says. As an example, she shouts out Anthony Salguero in Oakland, who leads Salvadoran pop-up Popoca, offering a spin on Salvadoran cuisine through a Californian lens.
The menu at Abanico is a display of Valle’s own experiences. She’s particularly proud of her cafe con morro, a licorice-tasting seed indigenous to numerous countries including El Salvador. The cubana is a compressed, powder keg dream.
It’s not all simple enjoyment of her culture, though. As a Latina woman, Valle says she’s no stranger to unsolicited advice. While she says people mean well, she also says she has to defend her skills as a coffee roaster and businessperson more than most. And she’s not the first El Salvadoran business owner in the Mission; everyone knows pupusas, fried and stuffed pockets that are ubiquitous around the Mission, but Valle says people want more. They want to see those different parts of Salvadoran tastes that are less common. “They are excited,” Valle says. “It feels like they’ve been waiting for a business like Abanico.”
Talking about her experiences and inspirations is a joy for Valle. She says she loves providing a place for her community. “As Salvadorans in the United States, we’re from here but not really from here,” Valle says. “They enjoy the fact that they’re being represented.”
These chefs have at least one thing in common: Promoting a deeper understanding of their cultures can be difficult. Many people can enjoy food and drink from a different country, but making an impact in the community is not always so simple. It’s all too easy to eat quesabirria tacos without thinking about the challenges faced by Mexican people in both Mexico and the United States. There’s a lot to learn and understand, Valle says. “I’ve always felt this,” Valle says. “People’s idea about the culture comes from TV. And the news is mostly negative.”
She says that people often think about the Civil War in El Salvador, or the gangs. If you don’t know the people, food, or places of El Salvador, it can be nearly impossible to know the culture. Starting with her business is a great way to begin, Valle says. “Maybe they will go to El Salvador one day,” Valle says.
“I’ve always found it difficult to find Colombian food in San Francisco,” Chao Pescao chef Denis says. He did have one place: A hole in the wall on Valencia called El Majahual that closed about three years ago. “There was a Colombian grandmother in the back that reminded me of my grandmother,” Denis says. “I was sad to show up one day and see they were gone.”
That longing, plus what he calls a lack of good Cuban food representation in the city, led to Chao Pescao. Tucked below the enormous and immaculate Tenderloin community garden mural on McAllister, it’s hard to describe the restaurant without the word “colorful” leaping to mind. It’d be hard to describe the food without mentioning the color, too. Denis’s arepas de puerco, for example, manage to cram plantains, cilantro, and pork into Civic Center’s most vibrant bite.
Denis shows love for the other places in the Bay serving Cuban food, but after his 20 years in the industry he still felt something was missing. While still running the Mediterranean restaurant Soluna Cafe & Lounge, the business that would become Chao Pescao, he tried out Cuban food. It was a hit. “We did Latin Nights at Soluna,” Denis says. “Being shut down for so long gave me time to think, and I thought I should just really go for it.”
There was a financial benefit, too; Denis says his people’s food, both Colombian and Cuban, can be affordable to make. That allows him to offer it at lower prices, which is important to Denis as he thinks about an ever-more-expensive San Francisco. Denis says it’s also self-serving. “The food is delicious,” he says. “The Bay Area, or at least San Francisco, is missing out.”
The care and time that goes into Cuban and Colombian food is what Denis hopes to bring forward at Chao Pescao. His family would spend all day and night on slow-cooking dishes like Denis’s ropa vieja, getting the meat to drip off the bone. Denis says he’s still surprised when people aren’t familiar with Cuban and Colombian food or culture. “Most of these countries, especially Cuba and Colombia, offer basic foods,” Denis says. “The ingredients aren’t always too adventurous. It’s just the way they’re presented.”
How all that consciousness, or lack thereof, ties to political action is still tricky, he acknowledges. But he does what he can. “Many of my family in Cuba have gone back and forth from the States,” Denis says. “I hear about what’s going on there. It’s a sad situation … All I can do is help with the exposure.”
Despite the challenges, Denis says that San Francisco is at an advantage. “Palates are a bit more advanced due to the various cultures here that give us the opportunity to try all these foods,” Denis says.
From all their various parts of Central and South America, these business owners find themselves speaking a common truth. Being bold and brave in the kitchen continues to be its own journey, whereas customers and diners have their own path of unpacking long-held and often wrong assumptions about these rich cuisines.