When a 6-year-old Manny Mendez first walked into the grocery store on Broad Street where Lowe’s Home Improvement is now located, he was dumbfounded. He’d never seen row upon row of shelves stocked with food before. It was 1968, and he and his family had just arrived in the United States from Cuba.
“There, you wait all day in line with your grandfather and when you get up front, you get your 2 pounds of rice, four kinds of beans and your gallon of milk,” says Mendez, who now owns Kuba Kuba. “[It] was a lot different here.”
Things are changing in Cuba. Last week the government released 53 prisoners as part of the deal it made with President Barack Obama in exchange for lifting the 54-year-old American trade embargo against the country.
The Mendez family’s opinion about the normalization of diplomatic relations is divided along generational lines.
“I do not get angry with my mom [when she says], ‘Nuke them! Let God sort it out,’” Mendez says.
His mother, Judith, spent 13 months in a Cuban prison, sentenced to hard labor, because the government suspected that she was an American spy. Why? She worked for AT&T. “We call my mom a freedom fighter,” Mendez says. “I don’t have those same bitter feelings.”
In Cuba, his parents kept politics away from their children and Mendez would only hear how wonderful Fidel Castro was. Once they arrived in Richmond, things turned upside-down. “All of a sudden Fidel was evil,” he says. “There was a little bit of confusion for me.”
In the 1960s, the Red Cross negotiated a deal to fly Cubans out of the country, called freedom flights. The Mendez family, visas in hand, planned to go to Spain, but the only flights available that day were to the United States.
“In a way, we got lucky,” Mendez says. “It saved us the airfare later from Spain to the U.S.”
Mendez’s grandmother took advantage of the overabundance of American food. She did all the cooking for the family — with Mendez’s uncle, aunt and cousins living on the same block. The cooking started just after breakfast, he recalls.
“Sometimes [the kids] fell for the advertising and got Cheerios and Frosted Flakes,” he says. “We always came back to Cuban food though.”
His grandmother’s pressure cooker was going all day, filled with garlic, beans and ham hocks. She cooked cassava root, made watermelon popsicles and roasted pork. On Cutshaw Avenue, where the family lived, the smell of her cooking was a brand-new experience for her American neighbors.
“I don’t think they’d smelled a lot of garlic before,” he says. You can see his grandmother’s recipes all over the menu at Kuba Kuba.
When he looks back on his childhood before and after his parents left Cuba, Mendez doesn’t see a lot of difference in the way he felt in one place or another. “Too me, life was always wonderful,” he says. “I never knew that there were any problems.”
Happy days: Buddy’s opened in its new location Thursday, Jan. 15. The space brought all of its knickknacks and artwork along with it, including the stuffed buffalo head. The space is lighter, sleeker and has a lot more room for rejoicing than the old one. Chef Carly Herring’s menu includes new things — pterodactyl wings (barbecue or buffalo), chili cheese tots and grilled meatloaf — plus plenty of old favorites.
Sexy nights: When you think about it, pairing food, wine and lingerie seems like a natural fit. In fact, you may already have tried it — but perhaps not during a night out. Carytown’s Amour Wine Bistro will throw a pre-Valentine’s Day event Jan. 25 at 6 p.m., serving a three-course dinner paired with wine, while diners enjoy a fashion show from nearby lingerie store Fiamour. Tickets are $29. amourwinebistro.com.
Apple a day: Courthouse Creek Cidery, which will be near Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery in Goochland, will start production in the fall, Richmond BizSense reports. The cidery is still in the planning stage, and owners Eric and Liza Cioffi say they’ll use apples from other Virginia orchards until they get their own trees going. The Cioffis aim to plant 30 different kinds of American, English and French apple trees, along with a few pear trees.
Staying for dinner: Saucy’s Walk-Up in Petersburg opened a dinner spot right behind its stand, Saucy’s Sit-Down, at 257 E. Bank St. on Jan. 10. Expect lots of stainless steel, six beers on tap and the same well-loved menu from 5-10 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays.
Test of time: Poe’s Pub, Helen’s Restaurant and River City Diner turned 20 in 2014, and the Melting Pot is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Happy birthday!