I’m celebrating my 46th birthday at Rancho Alegre Cuban Restaurant. Rancho Alegre translates to “Happy Ranch,” which sounds like a place to enjoy life. While it’s great to have special celebration days, shouldn’t every day be special and celebrated?
Our waiter mentions the grouper special: I’m hooked. I’m a Grouper Groupie. I love the flavor, the texture, even the Portuguese garoupa derivation of the wor,d which I learned while working in a kitchen outside of Boston where the crew spoke mostly Portuguese.
I even enjoy reading articles about importers getting busted knowingly selling cheaper Asian catfish as grouper. Rancho Allegre owner Te´mo Ortiz says he’s had to return product because it wasn’t grouper.
Glenda Lewis, who retired after working 20 years as a corrections officer at Rikers Island, not only suggested Rancho Alegre, but wrote down the name, address and phone number so I’d be sure to get there. Then photographer Lee Futch told me that it’s his favorite restaurant in Savannah; that’s high praise as he’s dined all over the world and is very discerning.
When I enter I remember that I’d been to Rancho Alegre when I first moved to Savannah. I was dating a woman who told me on the night that we met that she had two objectives in dating me: One, to convert me to Christianity. The other? She wanted my money.
I’m not dating anyone now, so working on my birthday is a great option -- an option I rarely got when I actually worked in kitchens. Lee has a dish of Puerto Rican pigeon pea rice, pork chunks and sweet plaintains for lunch.
I have Guanabana fruit juice, a Cuban tamale in corn husk with roasted pork, and the aforementioned Grouper special: A dish of Spanish origin which came smothered in a dark green, tangy tasty sauce of capers, anchovies, parsley, mustard, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar...and a disclosable secret ingredient: Cuban bread is mixed into the sauce for flavor and texture. For dessert a smooth, dense wonderful Cheesecake Tropicale topped with guava mango sauce.
Te´mo Ortiz is Mexican. The idea to open a Cuban restaurant in Savannah came from his friend-co worker Jorge, a Cuban who helped him with the recipes and then stayed on for a year to make sure Te´mo and his staff were knowledgeable and comfortable.
During lunch Glenda stops in with her daughter Jordan. When we finish eating Lee and I join them; Te´mo joins us.
“I always like to be a little bit risky on things, I always try do different things. Nobody has my concept,” Ortiz says. “For me this was a challenge. I already had much responsibilities and I was, O.K. why not, let’s give it a shot it’s one more that I can carry.”
When I ask him about going from employee to employer, he says, “Why not, let’s give it a shot.”
I’m slightly awed by people who own and operate their own businesses. I’ve tried it before; with two versions of a short fiction magazine and an exercise equipment maintenance company. I was the “owner” and only “employee” of all three; none were full fledged registered businesses.
Government paperwork baffled and stifled me. To Te´mo they were just something that needed to be done: “The legal things I took care of. Everything’s out there. The things that you need to get, you have to do your homework. You say, “What do I need to open a place? I need this, this and this, and you have to put all of the puzzle together.”
Talking with restaurant owners is so cool.
As we tour his restaurant Te´mo says, “We don’t have happy hour specials or anything to attract people. We have the real stuff. The food makes it feel like you are eating in someone’s home because the food is so true.”
Real stuff that includes original Pan American Airways posters and framed Cuban money on the walls. There is even Café Bustelo, which Te´mo informs me is essential to a Cuban restaurant.
In the kitchen the Tres Leche Cakes are just coming out of the oven. Each individual cake soaks up like a sponge a rich mixture of a little bit of white wine - another trade secret! - evaporated, condensed, and whole milks. I want one (or two) but I’m full.
I ask if I can try the special, hot hot sauce that the cooks keep in the kitchen for themselves and don’t serve to the customers. It doesn’t exist!
Te´mo explains that his food doesn’t need and isn’t enhanced by hot sauce. But he tells me they do have an appetizer that they all snack on that doesn’t make the menu, cheese topped deep fried plaintains with mojo sauce.
Eventually it’s time to go. Lee picks up a single maraca from the fireplace and shakes it. Te´mo explains the tradition/superstition that “you never shake just one maraca”: If you do you won’t get the luck derived from shaking both.
Lee shook both maracas: Does the luck cover an entire group? Last year I planned a trip to Cuba via Kingston that never happened. I’m planning it again; I want to get there before Fidel dies.
Maybe with lots of luck I’ll be able to celebrate with a date: in Rancho Alegre and in Havana.
Rancho Alegre Cuban Restaurant
44 Posey Street
Savannah Ga. 31406
Mon-Thursday 11 am to 9:30 pm
Fri. & Sat. 11 am to 10:30 pm