Growing up in Cuba, Jennice Rodriguez learned how to make classic Cuban dishes from her grandmother. As an adult, she cooked in restaurants in the island nation, making those same recipes. Now, after emigrating to the U.S. and eventually settling in Maine, she’s ready to share her time-honored dishes with folks in the Bangor area.
Rodriguez and her husband, Sigfredo, aka Fred, quietly opened Cubita Libre Cafeteria, their new Cuban restaurant, in the Maine Square Mall on Hogan Road in Bangor in late August. Despite an intentionally soft opening, however, the couple was surprised to find members of the Bangor area’s Hispanic community lined up at their door mere days after opening, eagerly awaiting plates of hearty ropa vieja beef, sweet-and-savory Cuban sandwiches and freshly made Cuban coffee.
“I had no idea there would be a response like that,” Fred Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, said. “I don’t know how people found out, but they showed up right away. … The response was just really, really positive.”
The Rodriguezes moved to Maine in 2013 after living in Florida for many years, attracted by the Bangor area’s low crime rate and excellent schools. They settled in Winterport and initially looked there for a spot for the restaurant they dreamed of opening. Ultimately, though, they decided Bangor was a better fit for their business.
“There are so many restaurants now. Even from when we first moved here,” he said. “People want to try new and different food.”
While Fred manages the front of house, the soft-spoken Jennice, whose first language is Spanish, runs the small, economically organized kitchen. The dining space itself is very cozy, with seating for only about 15 to 20 people, and is painted in cheery, tropical colors. Dishes are plated right in front of you. However, Cubita Libre is geared more toward takeout service, rather than eat-in. The smell of garlic, seared meats and citrus pervades the cafe, from when Jennice arrives early in the morning to begin cooking, to when the last scraps of roast pork are put on the plate.
“We tell people that it’s home cooking. It’s all family recipes. It’s very traditional,” Rodriguez said. “And for people that don’t know Cuban food, I would say that it is spicy but not hot.”
Cuban sandwiches have gone mainstream in the past few years — the irresistible combination of ham, pork, cheese, pickles and mustard grilled on white bread can be found in restaurants nationwide — but other Cuban dishes are likely less well-known among Bangor’s dining population. Cuban cuisine blends Spanish, African and Caribbean influences into a flavorful, hearty style of food that’s distinct from other Latin or Caribbean cuisines.
There are four main dishes on the menu, including Ropa Vieja, one of the oldest known Cuban dishes, consisting of beef, stewed with peppers and onions and then shredded. There’s also Boliche, a stuffed beef roast served with potatoes; Picadillo a la Habanero, ground beef cooked with raisins, potatoes and vegetables; and Pollo al Caldero, Cuban-style roasted chicken.
There also are ever-changing specials on the menu that vary with seasonal availability of ingredients. Marinated, grilled pork chops sometimes appear, as does red bean soup, empanadas and sweet, creamy, Cuban-style flan.
There are plenty of sides, too, like fried plantains, yucca root with garlic and onion, or red beans and rice. And for coffee lovers, Cubita Libre offers Cuban coffee — sweet, strong and served with or without milk (con leche or sin leche, respectively). Cuba is one of the world’s great coffee cultures. Whether they are in Havana or are part of the large Cuban community in Florida, Cubans get together to drink many cups of the dark, sweet beverage throughout the day.
“It’s a really good time to get into Cuban food,” Fred Rodriguez said. “I hope people are even more interested in it now that we’re open here.”
Cubita Libre Cafeteria is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, for eat-in or takeout. It is located at 661 Hogan Road in Bangor. For more information, call 573-1971 or “ like” them on Facebook.