Here's a sneak preview of Thursday's Four Stars column, on the new Cuban cafe in the skyway-level First Avenue Food Court downtown:
Francisco Corripio has a great story to tell.
The 59-year-old native of Cuba fled the country with his family when he was 3. He lived most of his life in Miami, where he was a banker for 35 years, but about 10 years ago he came down with a rare medical condition -- "I'm alive because of Mayo Clinic," he says.
So Francisco and his wife of 10 years, Miguelina, moved here for Mayo reasons last year, as so many people do. One thing led to another and now he has a Cuban cafe tucked away in the First Avenue Food Court, where he serves the most authentic Cubano pork, ham and cheese sandwich in town, as well as genuine Pilon Cuban coffee.
Francisco's Cuban Cafe opened a week ago Wednesday in the food court's far corner, which has been a graveyard for a few other fast food shops, but Francisco is accustomed to beating the odds.
"I don't have any restaurant experience whatsoever," he says. "I always wanted to open one in Miami but in Miami they're a dime a dozen."
With help from his daughter Lisette, who with her husband owns a restaurant in Jamaica called the Cool Spot, "I believe this is going to be the first one...we're hoping there are more to come." They're already thinking about a full restaurant elsewhere in Rochester, if this one goes well.
The cafe is a full-blown family affair. Francisco, who's wheelchair-bound, runs the business, along with Mickie, who donated a kidney to him during his medical ordeal. Lisette Nunez is general manager and an ex-son-in-law, Kevin Zapata, is in the kitchen. Also helping is a friend from Miami, Daisy Lara, who like the others knows the secret of the Cuban espresso machine.
Another daughter, Denise Nunez, was in town this week to pursue a residency in pediatric neurology at Mayo.
Francisco says he got into the cafe business because he missed the food he's always enjoyed in Florida -- "and I figured if I'm missing it, Rochester is missing it. It was time to give it a try."
Two weeks ago, I wrote about Cuban sandwiches in this column and noted that Francisco was about to open. Now that his foil-covered sandwich press is fired up, I can report that the Cubano sandwich ($6.99) is just what you'd expect -- completely different from others available locally, and I'll assume as genuine as you can get in Minnesota, outside the metro area.
As with all sandwiches, "it begins with the bread," Francisco says. It's a Cuban-style bread, baked on the premises every morning, crusty outside and fluffy inside. The rectangular loaf is filled with thinly sliced ham, pork and Swiss cheese, with a mild mustard and crispy pickle chips.
"That's the authentic Cuban sandwich. It doesn't have anything else, no salami, no lettuce, no mayo, nothing." It's not pulled pork, either, which is what other sandwiches I wrote about last week featured. Francisco's uses a thin, cold-cut style piece of pork, and then it gets grilled and pressed in a counter-top cooker, which makes it dense, chewy and textured, plus it's hot through-and-through.
Francisco's is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and they have a lot more than just the Cubano sandwich on the menu, including flaky island pastries, daily specials such as ropa vieja, Miami-made Cuban pop and, of course, the intense, smoky, ever-so-slightly sweetened Cuban coffee.
If you're craving Cuban, there's another pressed and grilled version at Fat Willy's, the auto-styled bar and grill in the Shoppes on Maine area, just west of the Galaxy 14 theaters. They call it the Ford Fairlane Cuban ($9.99) and it's a hearty handful of a sandwich, pressed in a good hoagie roll and loaded with seasoned pulled pork and a dash of tart, house-made Key Lime mustard. It may not be the way it's served in Little Havana, but it's an excellent sandwich, with a side of what they call Backfire Beans.
Regarding the beans -- you have been warned.