Transport yourself to the streets of Old Havana — in Lakewood — today, when Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe will be cooking chicken paella and hosting a free performance by Latin Grammy-nominated vocalist Lily Hernandez and master drummer Calixto Ovideo at 2 p.m. The special event celebrates the restaurant's expansion and the start of its sixth year of business.
"Build it and they will come," says owner Sergio Negrin, whose friendly voice booms over the sizzling grill as he greets customers during the Friday lunch rush at Frijoles Colorado. "We are the field of dreams. The restaurant of dreams."
After five years of shuffling chairs around the seven-table restaurant in a Lakewood strip mall, Negrin and his wife, Roxanne, had their Field of Dreams moment when the Starbucks next door moved out, and they decided to expand Frijoles Colorado.
Renovations were completed this summer on what Sergio calls the "Cuba of Tomorrow" side of the restaurant, because it's so modern. The restaurant can now seat more than twice as many customers and also host musical guests.
"It was just a wish to expand; we never thought we would be able to do it," says Roxanne. "I went shopping in all of our houses for art. So it's like I really am inviting people into my living room."
Every dish is a celebration of family for the couple, who get to the restaurant at 4 a.m. every day to bake fresh bread. Three generations of Negrins work at the restaurant, calling out orders and playfully joking over the Cuban street music. "Ney-yeah-yeah-yeah," Sergio sings, punctuating the lyrics as he grills chicken for the Pechuga de Pollo sandwich.
"I have no recipes; it's all in my head," says Roxanne, who learned to cook everything from her grandmother and Sergio's aunt. "It's my family's Cuban food, altered to my husband's tastes. I've been married to him for 32 years, and I do it all for him. We do things right or don't do them at all."
And for the Negrins, doing things right means making it from scratch.
"When I walk into a restaurant, if I can't smell the onions, I know they are opening cans and reheating," says Roxanne. "When you come to Frijoles, you can smell the homemade food." The restaurant has customers who complain when their husbands come home smelling of the delicious Cuban flavors from a lunch at Frijoles Colorado but don't bring anything home, she adds.
Specials change daily but often feature ropa vieja, which translates to "old clothes," a tangled, juicy web of tender skirt steak in a tomato-wine sauce with onions, tomato, celery and garlic. A favorite on the regular menu is lechon, a slow-roasted pork that's marinated in the family's special "naranja agria" or "sour orange" mojo for two days, then roasted until it's pull-apart tender. The family's mojo recipe with garlic, onion, cumin and oregano has been used for over forty years.
Other popular dishes include an El Cubano sandwich, stacked with signature roast pork, ham and melted Swiss on baked-fresh-daily pressed Cuban bread. Traditional Cuban sides like arroz moro (white rice infused with black beans), fried plantains, yuca and papitas fritas (shoestring fries) accompany entrees. "We looked for these shoestring potato fries for six months, because the French fries here aren't thin enough," says Roxanne.
Almost all items, including the empanadas stuffed with guava and cheese, pastelitos, soups, flan and arroz con leche, are made in-house. "The flan is my grandmother's recipe and a tribute to her," says Roxanne. "Most flans are jiggly and custardy with a lot of egg. Not this one." The result is a creamy, melt-in-your mouth flan, reminiscent of cheesecake, with a caramel-candy topping.
"The candy topping on the flan is not necessarily a recipe, it's a technique," explains Roxanne. "My grandmother, to make the candy that goes on the top of the flan, made it in a cookie can. To this day, I still make it in a cookie can."
While Colorado Frijoles prides itself on tradition, regulars welcomed the new space. "The secret is out. We have sold fifteen pounds of plantains today just for lunch," says Sergio, who jokes that they might have to sell a lot more El Cubanos to pay the rent.
"They needed the extra space. We have thirty restaurants we could go to nearby, but we don't. We eat at home or we come here," says Chris Cumsille, who visits about three times a week with his wife, Karen.
"We have a bunch of patients at our clinic who schedule their appointments around lunchtime so they can eat here," adds Karen. "We love that this is a family-run business; we know their names and that their dreams are coming true."
Sergio recently helped Cumsille brine and roast a full pig in his five-foot-deep backyard "fire pit on steroids" using the traditional Cuban style of wrapping the pig in banana leaves and throwing guava sticks in the charcoal. (Sergio also roasts a pig for Westword's annual DISH event.)
"He showed me how to brine the pig for two days and let me brine it at the restaurant," says Cumsille, who cooked the Negrins a special dinner as thanks.
As the lunch rush dies down, Sergio and Roxanne start prepping for dinner, when two of their sons, Jonathan and Jordan, run the restaurant. Even though they are prepping flan, wheeling carts of bread and chasing their grandson, they still manage to keep up the conversations with every customer and wish all of them a blessed day.
Sergio and Roxanne have a family chant to explain their strong work ethic: "We are the owners of Frijoles Colorado. We are the cooks. We are the cleaners. And the plumbers. We buy the groceries. We cook the groceries. And then clean up the table afterwards." In short, they say, "We bring home the bacon — and then fry it up!"
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Frijoles Colorado is located at 12095 West Alameda Parkway in Lakewood. For more information, call
303-716-4587 or go to the Frijoles Colorado Facebook page.