10 Sep Chi Chi’s Cafe cooks up a hit with authentic Cuban fare
When Chi Chi’s Cafe opened in February, it was so packed it took us weeks to sample its traditional Cuban fare without having to stand in a long line. Many of those eager customers, especially students, were craving a taste of home, and by home, I’m not talking about Havana.
Chi Chi’s has a definite Miami vibe, but you don’t have to be a South Florida transplant to appreciate comfort classics like pastelitos or picadillo, a palomilla steak or medianoche sandwich. Pair with a colada or cortadito and you’ll be caffeinated all day.
Now that it’s summer, the pace has eased at Chi Chi’s, making it a good time to stop by the tiny, counter-serve venue on Tennessee Street, in the former home of Gritz N Greenz. The Frenchtown bakery/restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday.
“It was insane at first,” said co-owner Rafael Diaz, who named the restaurant after his wife Donna, who he affectionately calls Chi Chi. “We had hundreds of people here at a time. We didn’t expect it. So we hired more people, changed our equipment. It was a big learning curve.”
This is the first restaurant venture for Diaz, a first-generation American who is of Cuban heritage. He lived most of his life in Miami, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, then working as a police officer and then in corporate security for 30 years.
“My daughter went to FSU for four years and she was always saying, ‘Dad, bring me pastries and croquetas,” said Diaz. He wound up opening the restaurant after his daughter graduated in August. He bought the space in September and spent months doing renovations.
The result is a bright, cheerful setting accented in bold red hues, with retro pictures and large, humorous signs teasing: “You know you’re from Miami when …You live 15 minutes from the beach and never go” and so on. There’s also one that says “You know you are Cuban when …”
Many of the students working here are from Miami. To please discerning customers, Diaz orders 100 pounds of coffee from Hialeah in South Florida every month. He buys the puff pastry to bake his pastelitos daily, making all the fillings, like guava and cheese, coconut or beef. He makes a vegetarian empanada with black beans and cheese along with a regular beef empanada.
My husband and I moved from South Florida six years ago, so there’s a feeling of familiarity when we walk into Chi Chi’s, with its display case of golden pastries and sandwiches, the room scented with deep roasted coffee. We load up on the flavorful croquetas, stuffed with either creamy ham or chicken stuffed in a crunchy breaded shell and slowly savor our sweet café con leche.
When it’s available, order the frita or Cuban burger, the patties made with a mix of ground beef and pork, spiked with paprika and cumin, garnished with crisp potato sticks on a soft bun with a piquant sauce and french fries. It’s a delicious alternative to a typical burger.
The menu features a limited choice of entrees that include picadillo, a Cuban-style Sloppy Joe but much better, bringing a mound of well-seasoned ground beef with onions and peppers, served with white rice, black beans and plantains. Diaz said he is planning pig roasts for late summer when the students return.
We haven’t yet tried the Cuban sandwich, with layers of ham, pork and Swiss cheese or the medianoche (midnight) sandwich usually devoured as a late-night snack, but those are on our list for next time.
Chi Chi serves fruity milkshakes, including mamay, guava and banana as well as traditional coffee options, iced coffee and a drink called the Cafe Bonbon made with condensed milk, Cuban coffee and whipped cream.
If you’re not familiar with Cuban coffee, here’s a brief primer:
Cafecito: A small shot of potent Cuban coffee in a thimble-size cup.
Colada: Cuban coffee in a small plastic foam cup, served with small cups to share. Bring some to the office and your friends will love you forever.
Café con leche: Three-quarters of the drink is made with steamed milk and a shot of Cuban coffee. It’s typically served with a generous dose of sugar but you can ask for it without sugar and add your own.
Cortadito: It’s similar to a café con leche with less milk.
Diaz is encouraged to see Chi Chi’s attract newcomers to Cuban food as well as appreciative customers who grew up loving the cuisine.
“The community has been great,” said Diaz. “We feel so blessed.”
If you go
What: Chi Chi’s Cafe
Where: 460 W. Tennessee St.; 850-597-7588
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday