Travelers flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport who Google search for “Cuban food in Phoenix” will likely pull up Cubanitas Kitchen, a secret gem tucked inside the 76 gas station at the southwest corner of 30th and Washington streets.
“Last week, we started getting people from the airport,” says Angel Renteria, one of the restaurant’s three owners. “First, we had Cubans on layover to go to Florida.” Later that same week, a family flying from Houston to Phoenix called the restaurant to ensure it would be open shortly after they disembarked their airplane. “They showed up with their kids and in-laws,” Renteria adds.
Just last month, Renteria, Lennis Montero, and Keeon Pullen opened their Cuban eatery a couple of miles north of the airport.
When customers pull up to the orange-and-blue accented 76 gas station across the street from PHX Beer Co., some may question the functionality of their GPS and wonder if there’s a five-star Google-rated Cuban restaurant inside the gas station’s convenience store. The new signage isn’t installed yet.
“This place used to be a Mexican restaurant; we’re waiting for the sign permits,” Renteria says.
For now, the restaurant’s food truck, which is embellished with a vinyl wrap depicting almendrónes — Cuban slang for the refurbished classic American cars that are a common site throughout the country — and a giant Cubanitas Kitchen logo, doubles as business signage when parked outside.
The enticing smell of deep-fried plantains wafting throughout the parking lot also lets customers know they’re in the right spot. On a recent visit, Renteria’s fiancé and business partner, Lennis Montero, was peeling planstains in the kitchen.
“These are very popular back in Cuba,” she says.
Plantains are cousins of bananas, but they are not as sweet, especially when they are green and unripe. The starchy fruits are the foundation of the popular Latin American and Caribbean snack and side dish tostones.
To make tostones, Montero slices the plantains into inch-thick discs, which are deep-fried. Next, she pulls them out and flattens them with a cast-iron smasher until they resemble mini pancakes. Montero re-fries the plantain pieces until they have a golden hue and crispy texture, transforming them into the savory snack.
Cubanitas Kitchen serves tostones with a garlic mojo dipping sauce made with olive oil and diced garlic for $4. Montero also makes a $3 variation of tostones called chicharritas, which are deep-fried thinly sliced plantain pieces that resemble potato chips.
Another popular Cuban menu item is ropa vieja, a slow-cooked shredded beef in a flavorful tomato sauce.
“Mexicans come in, and they’re like, ‘What is ropa vieja?'” Renteria says. “Because, you know, it translates to ‘old clothes,’ right? So, they find it funny.”
Montero makes the dish with Cuban tomato sauce, garlic, cumin, onions, and bay leaves. She sautées shredded beef and adds green and red bell peppers, “which brings up the flavor and a powerful taste,” Renteria says.
The food’s colorful appearances resembles tattered and heaped clothes, hence the name, but it’s flavorful with a slight tanginess. It is balanced with a side of crispy, starchy tostones and congri, or Cuban black beans and rice. The plate sells for $14.
A Difficult Journey to the US
Renteria’s mother and grandmother, who are originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, taught him how to cook. Montero learned how to make the 20 items that are showcased on the eatery’s menu while living in Cuba, where she worked at coffee shops and restaurants.
But Montero disagreed with how businesses were treated in her home country. So she left Cuba on November 20, 2016, and began what would become a two-year-long odyssey that ended in Phoenix.
“I crossed 12 countries to get to the US” she says. “It was a difficult journey.”
Montero first traveled to Guyana. “Then we crossed the jungles in Brazil for 18 hours,” she recalls, “then Ecuador and Peru.” After becoming stranded in Peru, where she stayed for nine months, Montero used her cooking skills to get by.
“I bought a small cart and made papas rellenas (stuffed and fried mashed potatoes) with ropa vieja and sold them on the street,” she says, pointing to a picture of her cart, which measured about 4 feet long and sported a Cuban flag. .
After saving up her money, Montero continued the trek north into Central America, then into Mexico.
In October 2018, she arrived at the border and turned herself in to US Customs and Border Protection, asking for political asylum. She served 48 days in jail while waiting for a judge to hear her case. Then, in December 2018, the US government granted Montero asylum. She’s now a US resident and is applying for citizenship.
“I was so happy when I heard them say ‘Welcome to America,'” she recalls.
Montero made her way up to Phoenix, where she met Renteria. Not long after, they fell in love.
“You know that saying, ‘Good food is a way to a man’s heart,'” Renteria remarks. “Well, that really did it, and she’s also an awesome and strong person.”
Bringing a Taste of Home To Phoenix
In July, Montero and Renteria connected with Pullen and decided to open their Cuban food truck, which was an instant hit. The trio opened the brick-and-mortar restaurant inside the gas station’s convenience store last month, which doubles as a home base. Pullen and Renteria run the food truck at events, selling sandwiches and sides. Montero stays behind and manages the restaurant.
“The last event, we sold out of sandwiches and tostones,” Renteria says. “Our Cuban sandwiches have ham, grilled pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, and we use French bread. We’re using French bread because it’s the only bread almost identical to Cuban bread. The Cuban bread is a little bit more yellowish , and it’s hard to find that around here.”
The grilled sandwiches, which are topped with miniature Cuban flags, also come filled with beef, chicken, and pork and sell for $10. But not everything on the menu is strictly Cuban.
“We’re in an area where it’s mainly Mexican and Hispanic dominated,” Renteria continues. “The restaurant that we took over used to be a Mexican joint. So (customers) always come in asking for tacos. So Lennis (Montero) makes a Cuban taco, popular in New Jersey and Miami.”
Cuban tacos are larger than typical Mexican street tacos. They are served on six-inch tortillas and stuffed with steak, chicken, or ropa vieja. The tacos are topped with cilantro, lettuce, and house-made chipotle mayo sauce. The savory and hearty Cuban tacos run $4 apiece.
“Another difference (between Cuban and Mexican food) is nothing on the menu is spicy,” Renteria concludes. “Cubans, well 90 percent, do not eat spicy stuff. They focus mainly on the flavor.”
And that’s exactly Montero’s goal with her dishes. Being able to offer the flavors of her home country to hungry diners is a source of pride for the chef, who after the arduous two-year-long journey to get here, finally has a permanent spot to share a taste of Cuba with the Valley .