Husband and wife team bring taste of Cuba to Circle City

Milton and Brenda Zelaya traveled from Miami to Indianapolis with the hopes of experiencing other cultural cuisines such as Mexican food. In Miami, the authentic Mexican food scene was not nearly as abundant as it was here in Indiana. Little did the Zelayas know that soon their lives would change.

“When we, my family and I, moved here, we just went to some Mexican restaurants but then after a few months, we started missing our Cuban food and we said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to see if there are some Cuban restaurants in town,” said Brenda.

Upon arriving in Indianapolis, the Zelayas tried the only two Cuban restaurants. “We could see that they were both missing something…the real thing.’ … So I told my husband, ‘You know what? There is something missing in this town so maybe we could try to start our own business of cooking Cuban food in a Cuban restaurant.’ He was kind of saying, ‘Oh, you think so?’”

Then in 2012, their idea came to life allowing the couple to bring a taste of home to Indy’s International Marketplace. “When we knew that the previous owner of [Havana Cafe] was selling the restaurant, we took advantage of that and said, ‘We can start it! This is it. This is the one,’” said Brenda.

Making a move and opening a restaurant as first time restaurant owners came at a price for the Zelayas. After purchasing the existing Taste of Havana restaurant, the Zelayas needed to find new customers who would try the new menu.

“We started doing some advertising saying that the restaurant was under new management with a new owner and then people started coming. At that point, it was God’s purpose…we ended up in the Indianapolis Star. That was the boom and people started coming from everywhere,” said Brenda. “Right now I can say that all the customers that we have, and we have a lot of customers, are mostly far from [Indianapolis]. People will drive at least two to three hours [to eat here].”

Brenda manages Havana Cafe and performs customer service duties while her husband serves as the chef. After 24 years of experience, Milton became one of the best chefs in Miami. “The most successful thing about the restaurant is the food, the real Cuban food. And it’s weird because we’re not from Cuba; my husband and I are from Honduras,” said Brenda. “When we moved to Miami, we moved from Honduras. We really didn’t know anything about restaurants and his first job was in a Cuban restaurant. He was training to be the best chef in Miami.”

When asked about the most popular items on the menu, Brenda laughed and said, “The variety of Cuban food is very extensive and if we wanted to put all the Cuban food into menus, we would need about four or five more menus!”

Havana Cafe’s most popular and authentic Cuban dishes include the Ropa Vieja, which is shredded beef in a light tomato sauce, the roasted pork with moro rice and boiled yuca in addition to the ox tail stew. “Ox tail on our menu is a stew which is hard to cook and it’s one of the dishes on our menu that is a little more expensive,” said Brenda. “Because of that, the flavor of it is just so good. Not everyone can cook ox tail because it is so hard to cook. It takes a little bit more than four hours to cook and that’s what makes it very juicy and tender.”

Although these are just a few of the most popular dishes at Havana Cafe, Brenda said every customer has her or her own favorites. “One customer could say, ‘Oh, I like this one much better, the other one not so much,’” said Brenda.

Among loyal customers and the Circle City residents, the Zelayas adore the location of their restaurant which, according to Brenda, is in the perfect place because “Everybody can come and eat! … We try to give the best of what we have. It’s something different.”

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