When Havana Cafe opens in downtown Pasco on April 1, it promises to deliver a Cuban jolt to Tri-City diners more accustomed to spicy Mexican fare.
That’s exactly what motivated Leo Morales, who grew up near Havana, to venture into the dining industry in his adopted hometown.
Cuban cuisine is distinct for its tropical influences and Spanish, African and Asian palate.
It is also distinctly lacking in the Tri-Cities, he said.
“There’s no Cuban or South American food,” said Morales, who said his family’s go-to spot is a Japanese steakhouse in Richland.
Morales and his crew are transforming a former taqueria at 404 W. Lewis Street, near the downtown Pasco post office, into a cafe where customers can custom order sandwiches (starting at $7.40) or any number of Cuban dishes.
Morales said Havana Cafe will serve congri (black beans and rice), tostones, (fried sweet plantains), yucca con moyo (made with yucca root) and sweetened Cuban coffee along with beer and wine.
There will, of course, be a Cuban sandwich, if Morales can find the right bread.
A proper Cuban sandwich has to have a crunch to it, he said.
In another nod to Tri-City tastes, Havana Cafe will offer house-made salsas, although Cuban food typically is less sauced than its Mexican counterparts.
For the interior, Morales toned down the former taqueria’s bold decor. He repainted the yellow walls with white and hung paintings of the Havana neighborhoods where he grew up.
Morales was 18 when he and three brothers set out for the U.S. from Cuba in 1990, a period of escalating migration due to a shrinking economy in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union. The brothers spent three harrowing days at sea before they were picked up and admitted to the U.S.
He was embraced by the Cuban emigre community.
From Florida, he trekked west to San Francisco, where he worked in and managed restaurants. He became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and has lived in the Tri-Cities for about seven years, working as a long-haul trucker and making regular treks home to visit his mother and family.
Morales didn’t intend to open a restaurant until he spied a For Rent sign in the bright yellow taqueria and made inquiries.
The rent was affordable and included a full kitchen. Other than cosmetic changes, the long-time restaurant was ready for a new tenant.
It includes an ample back room for private gatherings. Morales hopes to rent it for weddings and other gatherings once the city of Pasco signs off.
The startup is funded by friends who are interested in helping his adopted hometown develop a taste for Cuban food.
With fewer than 300 people of Cuban extraction living in the Tri-Cities— according to Census figures — Morales hopes to appeal to a white and Latino audience.
In a nod to local preferences, Cafe Havana will serve some Mexican staples such as tacos and burritos, but with a twist.
“I’m going to sell a burrito with Cuban food in it,” he said.
Business hours will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. Follow Havana Cafe on Facebook @CubanFood19.
Taco Crawl tickets on sale now
Ticket books for the fourth -annual Pasco Taco Crawl, benefiting Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin counties, are available now at PascoTacoCrawl.com.
For Taco Crawl, customers purchase $20 booklets containing vouchers for a taco from each of the 20 participating taco trucks and Mexican restaurants between April 19 and May 4.
Taco Crawlers vote on their favorite taco, with the winner announced at the Cinco de Mayo Festival, to be held May 4 this year in downtown Pasco.
Nearly 2,000 people consumed more than 22,000 tacos in prior events, raising more than $20,000 for Boys & Girls Clubs. The price increases to $25 after April 11.