After moving to Houston following their daughter’s college graduation, Roberto and Esther Diaz say they fell in love with the city, its diversity, and the friendliness of its residents. But it was missing one thing, Roberto, 70, says — a Cuban restaurant that captured the energy and flavors of Havana.
Now, the Diazes are filling that void with the recent opening of Buena Vista Cuban Café. Located at 4601 Washington Avenue across from Burger Bodega, the elegant and swanky Memorial Heights restaurant is a representation of Roberto’s favorite aspects of his upbringing in Cuba. “I wanted to recreate things from my childhood, my inheritance,” he says.
A butcher by trade who owned supermarkets and oversaw restaurants in New York and Miami, Roberto started by assembling a team that could make his family’s Cuban dining vision come true. He tapped longtime chef Yankiel Rodriguez from Cuba and Houston chef Pedro Garcia to channel the elegance that can be found at some of the most spiffy restaurants within River Oaks, plus Cuban bartenders Maury Almaguer and Pedro De La Rosa, who created a cocktail menu of mojitos, sangrias, and rum-based drinks to fully reflected his vision of an upscale Cuban restaurant. “They might not speak the language, but they speak with their hands, the food, and the drinks,” Roberto, 70, says. “A lot of the dishes are not only important to me, but also to the Cuban community.”
Plates like Buena’s Cuban board — a sampler of croquetas, empanadas, plantain chips, yuca fries, and tostones — and the ropa vieja, a classic Cuban dish consisting of beef slow-cooked in spices and a tangy tomato sauce, are touchstones of Cuban cuisine, Roberto says. Other dishes show the breadth and diversity of Cuban food. The African-Cuban pork served over yucca mash is a reflection of Cuba’s African cultures and influences, while the seafood paella and the creamy flan are both nods to the country’s Spanish colonial history.
But more than the food and drinks, Roberta says he’s working to sell an experience to Houston, a sophisticated but relaxed and affordable retelling of his upbringing in Havana — a place where residents could relax and savor great food, music, and drinks.
Dripping in floral wallpaper, Buena Vista’s U-shaped bar seats 20 people and serves as a central fixture for the restaurant. “It’s very hard to enjoy Cuban food without a mojito,” Roberto adds, and so bartenders pour up carefully made mojitos, including the mezcalito, a smoky, spicy rendition made with mezcal. The dining room, which seats 100, channels the Caribbean with a combination of vibrant art, warm greens, splashes of pale pink, spiffy half-circle booths, and chandeliers. A charming terrace and patio area wraps around the restaurant, bordered with tropical plants and views of Washington Avenue. On Thursday nights, the restaurant comes alive with live music, professional dancers, and cigars rolled on site, festivities that will also be available during its grand opening on Saturday, September 30.
So far, Roberto says Buena Vista has gotten favorable reviews, including a stamp of approval from his 86-year-old mother.
“I really hope that 20 to 30 years from now, wherever you come from, there are still places you can go to experience what your parents experienced. You cannot lose those roots because then we’ll lose the identity that we have,” Roberto says. “We take huge pride in making these dishes for those reasons.”
Buena Vista Cuban Café is open from noon to 10 p.m. daily. 4601 Washington Avenue, #190, Houston, 77007.