profile | Habana blues
The 1951 blue Plymouth parked in its permanent spot inside the restaurant.
Lopez enjoys having an island of Cuban culture–with all its vibe and attitude– under his home and being able to welcome people every day to share it.
meant we were 13 miles out, in international waters,” Lopez said. Getting picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard led to a stay in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (this was in 1994, before Gitmo became notorious for imprisoning terrorists) and, ultimately, emigrating to the U.S. as legal resident aliens. But this was still only the beginning. “I first tried Miami but it was expensive. At minimum wage, you had to work three weeks just to pay $375 rent on a studio apartment,” Lopez said. “A friend I met at Guantanamo told me about a job in a Butchertown slaughterhouse for $10.50 an hour and two days later I was on the Greyhound bus.”
From Butchertown to Cementville to New Albany Lopez moved on to work at the Essroc cement plant in Speed, Indiana, and reconnected with his boyhood friend, Fernando Martinez, who had started with great success both Havana Rumba and later Mojito’s. Lopez started working part-time for Martinez and decided to try opening a place in Southern Indiana, the shortlived Cuba Libre on 10th Street in Jeffersonville. “People liked the food but you couldn’t get a liquor license in that area and that made it tough,” Lopez said. “Then Mike Kopp talked me into looking at New Albany. I hadn’t been here before but liked the old look of the downtown, and it was clear something was possible.” New Albany in 2010 was still known for more
restaurants that had gone out of business than for those that had succeeded. But Lopez and Chef Rafael Hernandez decided to take a chance and, in retrospect, it has paid off. Opening in the old New Albany Inn building, Lopez found a welcoming for a Cuban-inspired tapas (small plate) approach. “When we opened we put a short lesson about tapas on the menu. We had to educate people. But we knew they would love the flavors as long as we could get them to try it,” Lopez said. “Word of mouth helped us a lot, but still some guys would call and ask, ‘You’re a topless restaurant? You mean the servers are naked?’” Word got out and the combination of Cuban (itself a fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean cuisines) and international dishes served in a tapas style, along with a creative drinks menu, led first to curiosity and then a regular following. Five years later,
(opposite, clockwise from top left) Spanish paella with chicken and seafood; shrimp sautéed with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil; hummus trio — black pepper, roasted red pepper, and traditional hummus served with pita; a view of the spacious bar; grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce; a look inside the antique vault; grilled lamb chops with roasted red pepper hummus and olives; a sampling of empanadas filled with chicken, beef and vegetables; traditional Cuban sandwich.
FEB - MAR - APR 2017