17 Dec Q&A: El Ambia in downtown Melbourne serves Cuban dishes along with a view, music, dancing
If you wind your way down Melbourne Avenue, across from Crane Creek you will come upon El Ambia Cubano restaurant, where you will find the fuselage of a Lear jet, plus many more surprises.
Owner Alfredo Hernandez has big plans for the jet, but he wants to keep them under wraps, so until he explains otherwise, his guests will have to be content with the rest of what El Ambia offers, which is a lot.
In 10 years, El Ambia’s fiercely loyal clientele has embraced Alfredo’s eclectic little restaurant with passion. Babies have almost been born there, were it not for the fact that Holmes Regional Medical Center is only about five minutes away. Customers plunk down cash for birthday celebrations years ahead.
The food is good, of course, but patrons keep returning because of Alfredo and his partner in life, Vicky Ramirez. They have made El Ambia as energetic as conga drums (of which there are several at El Ambia) under the deft hands of Ricky Ricardo.
Ambia stands for buddy in Cuban slang, and Hernandez and Ramirez, make it a point to treat all their customers as long-standing friends.
Q: What is your history, Alfredo?
A: I was born in Cuba and worked as a pilot for Cubana de Aviacion and Aero Caribbean. I was very unhappy with the Castro regime and on Jan. 4, 1994, I decided to take off on a Cubana plane to seek refuge.
It was very tough at first. I sold flowers and lived under a bridge in Miami, I did valet parking at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. I worked as a house painter and then as a social worker until I got my license to fly back.
I retired in 2007 and lived in Costa Rica, where I had a sports equipment store on the beach. In 2008, I visited my oldest son, who was stationed at Patrick and was being deployed to Iraq, and I was enchanted by Melbourne. I said to myself that this was the place in which I wanted to live.
Q: How did you get into the restaurant business?
A: It was something I always wanted to try. Many of my recipes are from Nitza Villapol’s cookbook. She was the Cuban version of Julia Child.
Q: Please describe El Ambia in 25 words or less.
A: El Ambia is more than a restaurant. It’s a social club. This is a fun place.
Q: Signature dish?
A: Our Hemingway Rice. It’s our version of seafood paella with lobster, fish and shrimp cooked with yellow rice in our secret broth and served with sweet plantains and a salad.
A lot of people come for the lechon asado (classic Cuban roast pork dish), but we also have many who visit just for the seafood and the fish, like our whole snapper.
Q: What should first-time visitors try?
A: We offer a free sampler to all our visitors so they can get an idea of what to order. It includes picadillo (a Cuban stew of ground beef and tomatoes), Puerco (Cuban pork), ropa vieja (a dish of shredded beef in a rich broth) and Cuban bread.
A: Alfredo Jr. is 33, Dante is 21 and Oliver is 19. Vicky’s daughter is Luisa Fernandez. She is 25 and works in Colombia.
My mom and my sister live in Oregon.
Q: Words that describe you?
A: Passionate for my country and our traditions.
Q: What is on your bucket list?
A: To continue being Cuban. I think God is Cuban.
I also want to go back to Cuba in my own plane.
Q: Famous person you’d love to see at El Ambia?
A: I don’t really care for famous people.
El Ambia Cubano
Where: 950 E. Melbourne Ave., Melbourne
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday
Of note: Check out the daily lunch specials for $9. On Tuesdays, for example, Pollo Asado(mojo-marinated roasted chicken served with white rice, black beans and maduros), which usually goes for $11.99, is $9. Friday special is boliche, the hard-to-find Cuban pot roast.
El Ambia offers salsa (the dance) classes, entertainment including country music and even poetry readings. Patrons are invited to use the resident kayaks on Crane Creek.