"I'm doing it all over again," says Berta Navarro as she whirs around Havana Express, setting down knives and forks and speaking Spanish to two workers behind the front counter. Navarro and her son, Ricky Miranda, who together own Cafe 28 at the corner of Irving Park and Ravenswood, opened this spin-off next door in March. "I think we're crazy," she says. "We have enough work already."
When they bought Cafe 28 in October 1995, it was a one-room Cuban restaurant serving breakfast and lunch only. Since then it has expanded twice. The first time was in 1998, when Navarro and Miranda created a second room to accommodate demand for the dinner menu they'd created in 1996, which offers traditional Cuban and Mexican food side by side with more upscale new-Latin cooking. Their second growth spurt is Havana Express, where the prices are lower and the service is quicker. The kitchen whips up breakfast items like French toast stuffed with bananas, cream cheese, and brown sugar; a spinach, portobello, and feta frittata; and pastel de guava, a Cuban pastry made with phyllo and dripping with fruit puree, baked on the premises. To drink there's horchata (the traditional Latin American rice drink) as well as cappuccino, freshly pressed orange juice, and a melon batido (shake). It's open only on weekdays, and only until 3 PM. "We're going back to where we started," says Miranda.
Born in Guadalajara, Navarro was four when her mother left home to find work in the States, leaving her behind with her grandmother. "My life was fairly idyllic, climbing trees," she says. "I was a little tomboy." When she was seven she and her grandmother moved to Stockton, California, to rejoin Navarro's mother, who was employed at a cannery. "My mother's hands were cut from working," she says. "It was terrible. In Mexico we had indoor plumbing; in California we had an outhouse. My first Halloween, the landlady dressed up as a witch, and nobody bothered to tell me. So when I saw this witch looking out the window, I started to pray that she wouldn't take me away."
Navarro slowly acculturated. When she was 12, the family--including her little brother, Sal, who was born in California--moved to Chicago. At age 18 she went to secretarial school and got a job as a receptionist at the William Greiner tannery on Elston. Three years later she married Quirino Miranda, who is of Cuban descent. Navarro and her husband had two children, and in 1965 they opened a small grocery store in the DePaul area, where Ricky and his sister, Lulu, helped out. "Its strength was in the Latin butcher shop," says Ricky. "We sold beer and Latin specialties, including pig's feet." In 1976 the family added a restaurant serving Mexican standards such as black bean soup, enchiladas, and tacos. Navarro did the cooking, though she'd had no formal training.
At the Francis W. Parker School, Miranda's classmates predicted he would go into the restaurant business. "When I wound up in charge of the hot dog stand at the school fair, I put in bratwurst," he says. "I was always known for food." He went on to study business at Loyola, then worked as a waiter at Carlucci and Scoozi and later as a wine salesman. "Some cooks I met in the wine business now work [at Cafe 28]," he says.
Meanwhile, Navarro's marriage dissolved. She went to work managing the office of a wholesale poultry company but dreamed of having her own business again. In the mid-90s, when Miranda's marriage also fell apart, he and his mother decided to open a restaurant together. She would be the food person; he would handle organization and service. Then the owners of Cafe 28 decided to sell, and they jumped at the chance. "We both agreed right away that the restaurant would be half Mexican and half Cuban," Miranda says.
Cafe 28 started serving dinner only on weekends at first, and Navarro's food got more adventurous. Her spicy version of the classic Cuban papas rellenas, for example, is made with chicken rather than the customary beef, rolled in mashed potatoes, covered in Japanese bread crumbs, and served with saffron cream. "The Cuban people approve of it, though it's not traditional," she says.
Havana Express shares a phone number with the mother restaurant but has a separate entrance one door west. The lunch menu borrows freely from Cafe 28's lineup of Cuban specialties: there's a ropa vieja sandwich (made with beef simmered in garlic-tomato sauce) and picadillo, ground beef with raisins and olives, served with white rice and black beans. Totally new is "Chino Latino," a sort of Cuban fried rice that incorporates chicken, shrimp, zucchini, and corn. Cafe 28 desserts like pistachio rum cake and tres leches--made by hostess Maria Solis, who studied at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago--can also be ordered at the new place.
Full bar service is available in both rooms as well. The wine list, under Miranda's supervision, features Spanish, California, and South American bottles, and the bar serves up a mean margarita and traditional Cuban mojitos--mint, rum, sugar, and lime drinks, which also come without the rum. "Virgin mojitos settle your stomach," says Navarro.
To which Miranda adds, "She's my partner, but she's always the mother."
Havana Express is at 1806 W. Irving Park, 773-528-2883.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.