By Fred Sauceman
Near closing time, in the kitchen at Nani’s Restaurant, Natasha Arrazcaeta is canning garbanzo beans. Her mother, Marife, is roasting pork. Her father, Ray, is serving the evening’s last portion of caramel-glazed flan.
Except for the English descriptions, much of the menu at Nani’s is straight out of Cuba, with some influences from Marife’s Puerto Rican heritage. But Nani’s is a long way from the Caribbean. Its location is Blairsville, Georgia.
Fewer than 600 people live in this town in the northern Georgia mountains, known for its annual sorghum festival in October and its proximity to the Appalachian Trail. In all of Union County, there are only about 25,000 people. Of that total, 3.3 percent are listed as Hispanic or Latino.
Yet in Blairsville, the county seat, there are three Cuban restaurants. Nani’s, which opened in 2007, was the first. Dan’s Grill followed three years later. And in 2020, Lissy Rodriguez welcomed the first customers at Lala’s Kitchen in the Mountains.
In the nearby towns of Blue Ridge and McCaysville, Elizabeth Correa sells over-the-counter Cuban food and rum cakes at two locations of The Rum Cake Lady Cuban Café.
While The Hole in the Wall has been serving Southern fare such as biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, and fried okra since 1931 on the Blairsville square, this region in the Appalachian section of Georgia is becoming increasingly known for its empanadas and black beans.
Marife Arrazcaeta said the northern Georgia mountains captivated her the first time she visited, during a July Fourth holiday weekend. “It looks just like where I grew up in Puerto Rico,” she said, echoing the sentiments of virtually every former resident of the Caribbean region I encountered in Georgia. All these business owners were initially attracted by the region’s beauty, but the hospitality of the people convinced them to return and to make a new home in the mountains.
“When we opened the restaurant, the people here took us right in,” Marife said. “I’m committed to this community.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Ray and Marife kept their restaurant open. Every Monday they fed anyone who needed a plate of food. They even cooked food that people brought in to the restaurant. They delivered to doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and fire departments. Working on holidays and at times when others are relaxing at home is nothing new to Ray. A native of Cuba, he has been around restaurants for his entire life. He learned the service side of the business from his father, who worked at one of the oldest restaurants in America, the Columbia, founded in the Ybor City section of Tampa, Florida, by Spanish-Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez in 1905.
Marife began cooking in Puerto Rico when she was 12. She says her mother viewed cooking as a chore, so she learned from her grandmother and aunt. Marife recalled her first attempt at white rice, which would not come out of the pot. “But within a week, I got better,” she said with a laugh.
One measure of the popularity of Cuban and Puerto Rican food in northern Georgia is the fact that Nani’s goes through 14 liters of sofrito per week. This combination of garlic, onions, and green peppers, cooked in olive oil, flavors almost everything that comes out of the kitchen at Nani’s, from the stewed beef dish called ropa vieja to a pot of black beans. “Even the Thanksgiving turkey is marinated in sofrito,” Marife said.
“You cook in layers,” according to this daughter of a Spanish father and a Puerto Rican mother. “And you cook tasting. You don’t measure. If you find a Puerto Rican, you’re always going to find them in the kitchen, with the music up, and talking to everybody while we cook. That’s the heart of family right there.”
A sign inside Blairsville’s Dan’s Grill reads: Recetas de la Abuela, “grandmother’s recipes.” The version of ropa vieja, “old clothes,” with shredded beef, bell peppers, and onions in a light tomato sauce, served every day by Dan Hernandez and his staff, comes straight out of the kitchen of Dan’s grandmother in Cuba. He said his food is made “from scratch, no cans, on the spot.”
Cumin-scented black beans are cooked fresh every day. Green plantains cooked, pressed into patties, and fried become tostones, served with a brightly flavored mojo sauce of citrus and garlic. The mature, sweeter plantains, their skin blackened by ripening, are fried as maduros. Papa rellena is a popular appetizer of mashed potatoes filled with ground beef, then breaded and fried.
“As good as what we had in Miami and Tampa” is a frequent customer comment, with so many Floridians visiting the northern Georgia mountains. “Bringing Authentic Cuban Cuisine to the Mountains,” proclaims a Dan’s Grill T-shirt.
Advertisements for realty companies, electricians, car dealers, and well drillers border the tables at Dan’s Grill. In the middle of each table is a large map of Cuba.
As Dan’s father-in-law, René Quesada, said as he brought a meal-ending cup of café con leche to my table, “That’s Colombian coffee made by a Cuban in Blairsville.”
One of northern Georgia’s most beloved citizens, Elizabeth Correa is affectionately known as The Rum Cake Lady. The title carries a family legacy. Her late father, Gustavo Celestrin, ran a restaurant in Camagüey, Cuba, with a prophetic name, La Siempre Viva, “always alive.” He delighted customers with dishes such as roast pork with congri, a mixture of white rice and black beans, along with a side of yuca. His wife Belkis, a teacher by profession, made rum cakes for the restaurant.
It was an idyllic life for the couple and their three daughters. But Gustavo became increasingly concerned with the political situation in Cuba under dictator Fidel Castro and what Gustavo described as the “intolerable” conditions in his home country. Gustavo was right. Castro’s Communist regime closed the restaurant, confiscated all of the family’s property, and arrested Gustavo for attempting to rebel.
Eventually Gustavo made it to the U.S. after having to spend a year in exile in Spain. Disliking the cold weather of New Jersey, he and the family moved to Puerto Rico. After Gustavo’s death in an automobile accident, Belkis, then retired from her job as a teacher, decided to move the family to Miami. Her hobby, making rum cakes, turned into a business, as her daughter’s eventually would.
“The last year she was alive, 2006, she made 300 rum cakes that December,” Elizabeth said.
The recipe for The Rum Cake Lady Café’s Golden Rum Cake, upon which Elizabeth first built the business, is a direct inheritance from her mother, with its flavors of vanilla and butter and the addition of almonds. Elizabeth started selling rum cakes at northern Georgia farmers markets. She and her family had moved to Blue Ridge in 2012 in search of a quieter life compared to the big city of Miami. They, too, were drawn by the beauty of the mountain region and the friendliness of those who lived there. She opened her first café in 2015. That building is now devoted to cake baking. The Rum Cake Lady Cuban Café opened in 2017 in Blue Ridge, and the McCaysville location, where a gas station once stood, followed two years later, its back wall corresponding to the Georgia-Tennessee state line.
“I had decided I wanted to be a farm girl after living in the city my whole life, but then I got bored and started making the rum cakes using my mother’s recipe,” Elizabeth said. “It was brutal the first two years because no one knew what Cuban food was. Back in Cuba, everybody made rum cakes because rum and sugar were so abundant.”
She laughed as she noted that because of Georgia’s liquor laws, she must travel to another county to purchase the rum she uses in her cakes.
Elizabeth has continued to expand her product line. She has added a chocolate rum cake, with almonds or salty caramel, “depending on how I feel,” she said.
Customers wanted even more flavors, so Elizabeth added the Limoncello, a lemon rum cake with an Italian limoncello liqueur glaze that also requires a trip into another county. A true immigrant success story, she now ships her rum cakes all over the country, including a pumpkin spice variety in the fall and a red velvet version around Valentine’s Day.
At her counter-service cafés, Elizabeth also serves house-made empanadas, Cuban-style tamales, stuffed potatoes, black beans and rice, and, of course, Cuban sandwiches.
“My Cuban sandwich involves a lot of love and labor,” she said. “It is made with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles, and Cuban bread. The pork is roasted from six to eight hours then shredded. We marinate it in mojo — citrus and garlic. The ham is cooked in pineapple juice. And I have a thing against wimpy pickles. These are spicy — kosher with a crunch to them.”
But the bread, Elizabeth said, is the most important part. The bread she uses for Cuban sandwiches comes in on special order from the La Segunda Bakery in Tampa’s Ybor City. The 24-hour business has been in continuous operation since Spanish-American War veteran Juan Moré opened the bakery in 1915. Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, La Segunda turns out 18,000 loaves of Cuban bread daily.
“They ship it to us half-baked,” says Elizabeth. “We proof it in the morning and then finish baking it. Customers love it.”
In 2021, Elizabeth’s husband David left his corporate job to handle the catering and maintenance sides of the business, with help from their sons David Jr. and Christopher, who are both fluent in Spanish. Through his daughter’s food ventures, Gustavo Celestrin is, in a sense, “always alive.”
David Correa and Elizabeth were high school sweethearts in Puerto Rico, and she has known Lissy Rodriguez even longer, back to their days in Cuba. In fact, Lissy and Elizabeth are cousins, now living within a few miles of each other, and both in the food business in northern Georgia.
Lissy came to America when she was 15, after a stop in Spain. She tells the same love story about northern Georgia, a place she came to know on visits to see her brother-in-law.
“I used to come here every year,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful place for me.”
Her opening of Lala’s Kitchen in the Mountains occurred just as COVID-19 was beginning to grip the country, yet through the same persistence and initiative shown by her Cuban and Puerto Rican colleagues in Union and Fannin counties, she has succeeded.
“Cuban food is very good for you because it has garlic, cumin, olive oil — very homemade,” she said. Her menu is international in nature, with offerings such as French onion soup, Caesar salad, and shrimp creole. Paying homage to her Spanish grandparents, she offers a beautiful seafood paella, seasoned with saffron. Her flan, laced with coconut, has earned her many accolades in northern Georgia. And in tribute to her adopted state, she serves a flan flavored with peaches.
As Cuban immigrants have done for decades, these northern Georgia restaurant owners manage to balance allegiance to the cultures they left behind with veneration of their adopted homeland. That balance is reflected in their food. It is reflected in their patriotism. And it is reflected in their love of place, whether it be an island in the Caribbean or a mountain-ringed Georgia village. Because of their hard work, resourcefulness, and creativity, fried plantains and ham croquettes have found a permanent new home in the mountains of northern Georgia.
Fred Sauceman has written and edited seven food-related books. His latest is The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.