The Miami Herald
Mar. 23, 2002

Old Cuban eatery gets Honduran flavor

                      BY LILA ARZUA

                      It's called Little Havana, but its heart is now dotted with Nicaraguan restaurants and Peruvian beer halls among
                      the Cuban cafeterías.

                      In a change that symbolizes the metamorphosis of the community, Miami's landmark Cuban restaurant -- La
                      Esquina de Tejas -- is now under Honduran ownership. A regular might not even notice the new name: La Esquina
                      de Tejas Hondureña.

                      In Miami, the corner at Southwest First Street and 12th Avenue has long been more than a place, as one says in
                      Spanglish, to ''lonchar.'' Since its founding in 1965, the Esquina has won its way into Miami's stomach with
                      authentic Cuban cuisine. And in 1983, it found its way into Miami's heart with President Ronald Reagan's visit.

                      ''People will always and forever always remember La Esquina de Tejas and Reagan,'' said Lian Chamizo, who
                      married into the business in 1988 and runs La Esquina de Tejas in Pembroke Pines with husband Alex since 2000.
                      'There's thousands of Cuban restaurants throughout South Florida now, but visitors come from all over and ask,
                      `Is this the place where Reagan ate?' ''

                      On the afternoon of Friday, May 20, 1983, the restaurant was the president's first stop on a visit commemorating
                      the 81st Cuban Independence Day. Before a speech at the Dade County Auditorium and conferences with
                      Cuban-American National Foundation board members and local Republican leaders, Reagan traveled by
                      motorcade to the restaurant. While adoring crowds cheered outside, Reagan ate beside 200 regular patrons
                      invited for the occasion.

                      Today, tourists from Japan and Germany come with yellowed newspaper clippings and ask to order what the
                      president ate, said the restaurant's founding patriarch Wilfredo Chamizo, father of Alex Chamizo.

                      That would be roast chicken, plantains, black beans and rice, flan and café. Today, the bill runs $8.50. Back then
                      it was $3.75 -- but the president didn't have to pay.

                      For years after the visit, photographs and memorabilia from that special day covered the restaurant. But
                      co-owner Juan Vento stashed the table at which Reagan ate -- his chair, plate, knife and fork and linen napkin are
                      also tucked away in a secret hideaway still unrevealed.

                      ''The whole world knows this corner,'' said new owner Sandra Avila, who runs the restaurant with husband Manuel
                      Reyes. She says much of the customer base has remained the same -- hospital, court and local office employees
                      during the week. On weekends, it's mostly tourists who've heard of the eatery's fame.

                      In the 1990s, Chamizo and his wife flirted with selling Esquina. (The other founding partner, Juan Vento, had left
                      the original business to start a fast-food version.)

                      But the 1996 purchase by Charade owner Leon Pariente ended in acrimony just three months after the deal, and
                      the Chamizo family got their old place back. They later sold the building. Another prospective buyer last summer
                      backed out after 9/11.

                      Then came along came along Sandra Avila and Manuel Reyes, a Honduran couple who used their savings to buy
                      the restaurant. And this time the transition, which took place in December, appears final.

                      Today, Honduran crafts adorn the walls once lined endlessly by bottles of wine. And instead of the dozens of hams
                      that once dangled above the tables, there are now just a few.

                      But La Esquina de Tejas, which refers to Cuba's famed ''Corner of Tiles'' or to ''Texas Corner'' by some -- still has
                      the same cook and much of the wait staff and bustles with longtime patrons.

                      ''I walk in, and she tells me what I want,'' said attorney David McDonald, a regular for 15 years, smiling at
                      waitress Beba Lima Corujo. She's been at the restaurant 23 years and counts Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and
                      Governor Jeb Bush among her customers.

                      Aside from observing some changes in the décor, McDonald said he barely noticed the turnover. ''The most
                      important thing's the food and the people, and that's the same,'' he said as he prepared to dig into a chicken

                      But now restaurant patrons ordering carne asada must specify if they want the steak prepared Cuban-style (fried)
                      or Honduran (grilled).

                      The neighborhood around the restaurant reflects the same changes, as dozens of diners, pawn shops and mailing
                      services to Latin America cater not just to Little Havana, but to Little Tegucigalpa and Little Managua.

                      ''This used to be a Cuban neighborhood, but not any more,'' said Juan Carlos Ortega, who is Nicaraguan and
                      knows Ecuadoreans, Guatemalans and families from all over Latin America in the area. ``Some of the owners are
                      still Cuban, but the United Nations lives on this block.''

                      At the Little Havana Esquina, they can now also order from a Honduran menu featuring tacos, enchiladas and
                      baleadas: flour tortillas fixed with butter, refried beans and cheese.

                      Although the Chamizos took their Cuban eatery north to Pembroke Pines, they acknowledge it's a very different
                      place than the Little Havana landmark.

                      Bamboo curtains greet the customers at 18457 Pines Blvd., tucked for the last two years in strip mall between a
                      Mail Boxes Etc. and a pet shop.

                      The Reagan memorabilia once displayed from every angle has been relegated to a lone wall. Gone, too, are the
                      bottles of wine -- now individual ones on the tables -- and the hanging hams, though Lian Chamizo promises some
                      will be up soon.

                      ''It's a totally different animal,'' said Lian Chamizo, who says the family is now toying with the idea of opening
                      another restaurant in Weston or Coral Springs. ``It became time. The area had changed a lot, and a lot of our
                      regular customers were starting to move into Broward.''

                      Historian Paul George has brought well over a hundred tour groups to the restaurant in Miami. ''It's an
                      only-in-Miami kind of thing,'' said George, a professor of history at Miami-Dade Community College. He still
                      enjoys the food and hospitality at the Little Havana location despite the loss of the hallmark hams and

                      According to George, the 1920s building has been through a variety of incarnations. It was once the Riverside Tea
                      Garden, and in the 1940s it became the Farmhouse Restaurant with southern-style cooking. In the 1950s the
                      corner became known for its fresh fruit and exotic juices.

                      Today, the neighborhood has grown impoverished, but the professor has high hopes that the area will rebound.
                      ''It remains to be written what's going to happen,'' George said.

                      But for now, Miami's mayor, like the city, is ready to change with the times.

                      ''I wish the new owners well,'' said Manny Diaz. ``I'll come by and try their cuisine.''