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.''