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Cuban immigrants Gus Rodriguez and his wife, Yalili Mesa, opened Caliente restaurant in 2009.

Food speaks for itself at Caliente

Cuban owners thrived despite language barrier

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Caliente, 1123 E. State Blvd., has developed a strong following with its Cuban sandwiches and other Cuban specialties.
Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Gus Rodriguez creates papa rellenas – fried mashed potato balls stuffed with spicy ground beef – at Caliente, 1123 E. State Blvd.

When Yalili Mesa opened Caliente, the Cuban sandwich restaurant near the corner of East State Boulevard and Crescent Avenue, she didn’t know much about cooking.

She knew even less about speaking English.

The Cuban-born woman was so nervous about talking to customers, she would turn the ringer off her business phone. If conquering a language barrier when conversing face-to-face is difficult, doing so over the telephone is nearly impossible.

Mesa moved to Fort Wayne in 2001 via Miami with her husband, Gustavo Rodriguez, and their then 7-year-old son when she found out she was pregnant. The family had fled to Miami from their home in Cuba a year earlier and, with each parent making $6 an hour, Mesa and Rodriguez knew they needed to make more money to support their children.

Going back home to Cuba, where they could receive the support and help of their family, wasn’t an option. The family fled because Rodriguez, a journalist, was declared a political terrorist by Fidel Castro after he spoke against the Castro regime on the radio.

“You can’t tell anything you see,” Mesa says of life in Communist Cuba. “You write what they say. My husband was critical (of the government).”

Others on the “terrorist” list with Rodriguez have been thrown in jail; Rodriguez instead chose to move his family to the United States.

Finding their niche

After settling in Fort Wayne, Rodriguez eventually found a job as a supervisor at Community Harvest Food Bank while Mesa worked at Vera Bradley sewing handbags. Her supervisor and many co-workers spoke Spanish, so there was little pressure for Mesa to learn English.

After five years with the company, Mesa quit when her octogenarian parents moved to Fort Wayne.

“I needed to take care of them,” Mesa says. “After four years more, my parents decided (to go) back to Cuba. My dad is 95 years old. He is still alive. (So is her mother.) He says, ‘I want to go back to Cuba because I want to die in my land.’ ”

When Mesa’s parents lived in Fort Wayne, she benefited from their Social Security checks because she was caring for them. After they moved, it left her family with one income. She knew she needed a job.

When she saw the building at 1123 E. State Blvd. become available, she told her husband, “Maybe I can do something there.”

“I say, ‘I want to open a restaurant,’ ” Mesa recounts. “He say, ‘A restaurant? You never cook before.’ ”

With the help of one friend, Mesa opened Caliente, which is Spanish for “hot,” in 2009. It served six sandwiches, and the restaurant had two tables.

After about a year of operating Caliente with just the help of a friend, Mesa told her husband, “I can’t do it alone.”

So he quit his job at Community Harvest, and today, more than three years later, they are still the only two employees at Caliente, which has turned into a popular lunch stop for Fort Wayne. Mesa estimates that on average, she and her husband serve 70 or 80 people a day for lunch. That kind of traffic usually warrants three or more employees, she says, but the two do it all on their own.

American dream

The restaurant opportunity was one Rodriguez and Mesa could have never even dreamed of in their homeland.

“In Cuba, you can’t do nothing yourself,” Mesa says. A year ago, some regulations became a little looser, and some have tried opening their own business, “but you never know when they’re coming and saying, ‘That’s it. Everything is mine.’ ”

While finding himself as a restaurant owner may have been something of a novelty for Rodriguez, he knew he could never get into journalism. While he learned English before Mesa, he has trouble with the written word.

Instead, he has found one of the traits he loved most about being a journalist in the food world: interacting with people. Many of his customers become friends. He points to a couple eating outside.

“We went to their wedding,” Rodriguez says, and he and Mesa met the two through Caliente.

Today, the menu is larger than when Mesa started. The owners make their own tamales and offer up to 16 sandwiches. There are six tables indoors and, during warm months, diners can eat outside.

Technically, the Cuban sandwich at Caliente isn’t actually a Cuban sandwich. A true Cuban, Mesa says, does not have any jalapeños or onions on it. It’s a little bland. So she calls the Caliente sandwich the Hoosier version of a Cuban – and it’s one that has met rave reviews, even from native Cubans.

Much has changed in Caliente over the three years it has been open – including of course, that little fact that Mesa doesn’t need to turn off the ringer on the phone anymore.

“I passed my test,” she says, pointing to the framed ServSafe Certificate on the wall, which qualifies Mesa to be a certified food handler.

“I took the test in English.”

jyouhana@jg.net

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