Hispanic Heritage: Local business owner strives to share love of culture with Cuban cuisine

Hispanic Heritage Month

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) – From the sweetest plantains to the strongest cups of coffee, the unique dishes at Cuban Island Restaurant along Williamson Road in Roanoke is just part of the Cuban experience co-owner Estela Gonzalez-Perez hoped to create. 

“Ropa vieja, vaca frita, chicken and shrimp, and the sandwiches- everybody loves the sandwiches,” says Gonzalez-Perez. 

Gonzalez-Perez opened Cuban Island Restaurant in August of 2010 with her husband Manuel Hidalgo. Together, they opened the doors to one of the few Cuban-inspired restaurants in Southwest Virginia.

Born and raised in Cuba, Gonzalez-Perez says she was taught to cook at a young age by her strong-willed grandmother. 

At the time, no one in her family had any professional cooking experience. 

“Only my grandma [taught] it for the grandchildren [to learn]. She said this is necessary for every family,” says Gonzalez-Perez.

Her grandmother’s teachings involved both hands-on experience and reading. Gonzalez-Perez says she followed countless recipes inside several books personally given to her.

Those books proved to be key ingredients to Gonzalez-Perez’s success as a business owner.

Cuban Island Restaurant first started out as a catering truck in 2007. The vehicle was frequently parked at Happy’s Flea Market in Roanoke. After four years of continued success, Gonzalez-Perez was able to transform her business into a full-functioning restaurant.

Walking in, customers are immediately transported to a Cuban paradise, with the restaurant’s colorful decor and tropical beach aesthetics. 

An even bigger hit, the menu – a taste of Havana. A unique taste, that’s loved by many local residents.

“It was a nice find when we saw it the first time we came in,” says customer Maria Camacho.

Gonzalez-Perez says she also uses her business, as a learning experience for residents who have never come across authentic Cuban cuisine. 

“When I started the business […] not many people understand the culture for the Cuban food. Ejemplo (example), something simple – the Cuban expresso. When I opened the restaurant, nobody [understood]. But I gave it to them for one month. A free expresso for everybody. Now in Roanoke, everybody knows,” says Gonzalez-Perez.

According to her, operating a business not only requires hard work, but dedication. 

Most days out of the week, Gonzalez-Perez arrives at the restaurant at 8 a.m., preparing fresh and homemade dishes. 

Her restaurant has proved to be so popular, that it even attracts people from outside the Roanoke area.

“I have a trucking business here. Knowing that I’m from the island myself, which is Haiti […] I always look for something that’s close to home,” says Eddie Exis, a customer. 

Like many business owners, Gonzalez-Perez says her restaurant was harshly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuban Island Restaurant closed down briefly in March and had to undergo several changes, like temporarily banning indoor dining, and only offering to-go and curbside pick-ups.

Despite the challenges, Gonzalez-Perez continues to maintain good relationships with her customers- one of her favorite things to do as a business owner. 

“I love my customers. I love my relation[ships] for customers, for everybody. [I’m] very friendly [to] the people. I love that,” says Gonzalez-Perez.

Great food, and even better company. Everything that you can experience, in your own Cuban paradise. 

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