The music floats through the open front door of a restored historic building, past the diners sipping mojitos on the building’s front porch, past the recently opened trendy specialty shops down the street, possibly reaching as far away as Muhammad Ali’s old training gym two blocks away.
The bright yellow two-story building with a royal blue door is hard to miss. Inside the noisy restaurant, cabinets are filled with Cuban cigars, walls are lined with larger-than-life black-and-white photos of Havana in the 1950s, and the bar is stocked with Cuban rum. Welcome to La Bodeguita de Mimi, Louisville’s newest, but far from only Cuban restaurant. In a city known for bourbon, boxing, and betting, Cuban immigrants have been making a name for themselves in the restaurant scene here for the past decade.
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Louisville has the second largest population of Cuban immigrants per capita of any other American city outside of Florida. The majority of that growth has taken place during the past decade. In 2010, 6,500 Cuban immigrants lived in Louisville, however, that number has likely increased at least four-fold since.
“I estimate that we have surpassed 25,000 Cubans in town,” said Luis David Fuentes, publisher of the Kentucky-based Cuban magazine El Kentubano.
So, why is Louisville the hotbed of Cuban immigrants as opposed to more obvious choices like Miami?
“Kentucky es barato. Miami es muy caro,” said my Lyft driver, explaining how the cost of living in Louisville makes it more appealing than expensive cities like Miami. He immigrated from Havana to be close to family in 2019.
Compared with states like Florida and New York, Kentucky has a lower cost of living, lower tax burden, and cheaper rents, making it easier for new immigrants to financially assimilate into the environment and open businesses.
“I can assure you Louisville has more Cuban entrepreneurs per capita than anywhere else in the world,” Fuentes said. Fuentes moved to Kentucky 20 years ago and has been a champion of the Cuban community ever since. “The amount of grocery stores, realtors, body shops, handymen, and restaurants in Louisville is larger than any other area with Cuban communities.”
Havana Rumba was one of the first Cuban restaurants in town. Marcos Lorenzo opened it in 2004, four years after he immigrated to the United States. A civil engineer by trade, Lorenzo has turned one sixteen-table restaurant into a four-restaurant empire known for live music, Cuban comfort food, and strong mojitos. His latest restaurant, Mojitos in Havana, sprinkles in other types of traditional Latin American food such as tacos, pollo con queso, and quesadillas in between more traditional Cuban offerings.
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of French, African, and Spanish influences. Typical meals are served with black beans, rice, and plantains. Fish and pork are common in main dishes as are tropical fruits and root vegetables. Cuban comfort food consists of tostones rellenos, stews and soups, and Cuban sandwiches.
The national dish of Cuba, La Ropa Viaja, is shredded and braised short rib cooked in a red wine sauce. At La Bodeguita de Mima, the Cuban staple is served in a tin can as a throwback to the era of meat shortage, when Cuba’s only meat options came from cans shipped over from the former Soviet Union. Similar to sommeliers opening bottles of wine, servers show diners the can before proceeding to pop its top with a can opener before pouring it into a bowl surrounded by rice and plantains.
Owner Fernando Martinez named the restaurant after his mother and renowned cook Mima. The menu features “simple” Cuban food recreated from family recipes presented in an upscale environment.
Farther south from the city’s more trendy redeveloped neighborhoods, the Havana Bakery Cafe sits in an unassuming strip mall. The daily specials are written in chalk on the blackboard behind the counter. Diners without a sweet tooth stop by for generous portions of Bistec de Pollo, Ropa Vieja, and Pollo Frito.
Stripped down from the loud music and bright colors of other popular Cuban restaurants, the small family-owned cafe’s pastries are a huge draw. Uneven rows of flan, guava pastries, coconut tarts, empanadas, pan Cubano, and other freshly baked goods fill three glass displays. Torticas de Moron, a Cuban-style shortbread cookie with a sweet filling, are among the most popular desserts.
Whether or not this explosion in the Cuban population will continue over the next decade is yet to be seen. With a Cuban store on most major roads throughout the city, however, there is no doubt that this new wave of immigration is helping Louisville grow as a global community.