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La Havana Cafe Inspired by Owner's Cuban Childhood

By Seth Schwartz | January 18, 2016 7:54am
 Carlos Menendéz of La Havana, 2525 W. Division St.
Carlos Menendéz of La Havana, 2525 W. Division St.
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DNAinfo/Seth Schwartz

HUMBOLDT PARK — In Sanzti Spiritus, Cuba, the café was where local culture came alive. Friends and family met to converse or dine in a festive atmosphere.

Carlos Menendéz’s roots run deep in that town. His mother’s family came to Sanzti Spiritus from a small village in Spain in the 1820s. His great-grandfather, on his father’s side, came to Cuba in the 1880s and fought in the Cuban Civil War.

“If anything happened, it was usually at the café,” he said.

Now, Menendéz is bringing some of that experience to his own business, La Havana Cafe, 2525 W. Division St.

An elegant spot, the restaurant features the passion of Havana. Portraits of famous Cubans and period photographs of historic cities and buildings adorn its brick wall. There’s a painting of the La Foridita Café which Ernest Hemingway would frequent. There’s also a shot of Marlon Brando from a Havana club and a photo of a letter Hemingway wrote.

“I wanted a café that reflected Havana from the 1940s with a mix of old tradition and not too sophisticated,” Menendéz said.

A look inside La Havana, 2525 W. Division St. [DNAinfo/Seth Schwartz]

Menendéz's journey from Cuba to Humboldt Park was inspired by his father's spirit, he said.

“My dad always emphasized education was the most important,” Menendéz said. “He never complained and taught me to be positive, look forward to tomorrow and focus on the future.”

Earning a degree in industrial engineering from Santa Clara University, he went to work for a Havana company in 1997. Well-spoken and comfortable with people of all backgrounds, Menendéz was in charge of entertaining clients from countries across Europe and establishing business relationships.

“I’d create an event for 400 to 600 people for our company,” he said.

Embracing the cosmopolitan environment in Havana, Menendéz began to look beyond the island. In 2004, he moved to Chicago and less than a year later married his wife, Zarahi Fernandez, whom he first met in Cuba.

Speaking broken English, he couldn’t find work in the engineering field and took a job in construction. In 2010, Menendez helped his wife open an early childhood education program in the Portage Park neighborhood, which now serves 171 children from preschool through age 12.  

“We know education is the most important thing and wanted to show people in the community we have a first-class school and we’re fulfilling a need,” said Menendéz.

When a bar at 2525 W. Division St. closed down, Menendéz knew it was the perfect place for his vision to create a cafe like the one from his childhood.

Menendéz placed an ad in a Miami newspaper for a Cuban chef. “I have a vision of how the food should be and it was imperative that my relationship with the chef put us on the same page,” explained Menendéz.

 La Havana Cafe, 2525 W. Division St.
La Havana Cafe, 2525 W. Division St.
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DNAinfo/Seth Schwartz

When Osoiel Chieinio responded to the ad, the two had detailed conversations for two months before the chef flew to Chicago for a final exam.

A quartet of Menendéz’s confidants with seasoned palates were brought in to digest dishes and dispense critical analysis. Ropa vieja, vaca frita, grilled fish, black bean soup, rice, breaded chicken and breaded steak sandwiches, plantains and a delicious deep-fried marekita were served.

Chienio passed the audition.

Chef Osoiel Chieinio and his wife Vivian.

La Havana offers a dozen entrees, including lemon grilled chicken, a classic Cuban-style roasted pork marinated in citrus juice, and a delicious ropa vieja (a stewed beef and vegetable dish.) Nine sandwiches are available for lighter meals along with a range of appetizers. Everything is made fresh daily.

For those who like spirits, there’s a nice selection of Chianti from Italy, Spain and California along with 10 craft beers.  

Menendéz also bought an Italian roaster and grinder to make his Cuban coffee and espresso, which are in daily demand.

Dishes at La Havana Cafe include Ropa Vieja with black beans, white rice and plantains. [DNAinfo/Seth Schwartz]

At 6 feet, 1 inch, impeccably dressed and genial, Menendéz serves as proprietor and trouble shooter from 11 a.m. until past midnight. The restaurant has seating for about 40 and a bar that seats 10.

“We have a regular group from the neighborhood coming in three and four times a week,” said Menendéz. “We have members of the business community who are regulars. I wanted the emphasis to be on enjoying your time and each other’s company in a beautiful setting.”

The restaurant also has a catering side and also holds private parties for business events.

“I grew up with Cuban food and Carlos has kept everything authentic,” said Logan Square resident Lorenzo Sanchez, who emigrated from Cuban as a youth. “The Miami 8th Street Lechon has great flavor and is nice and moist. Most of the other places make it where it’s too dry. The ropa vieja has a wonderful mix of flavors and I really like the margaritas. You can taste the freshness in everything.

“It’s a great family place that’s a perfect fit for the neighborhood.”

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