Taste of Cuba is not your typical restaurant. In fact it’s not really a restaurant at all.
There’s a counter, yes, and fresh food is sold here, but owner George “Bolo” Lopez conceives of his business as more like catering on demand. Maybe like hiring a personal chef without the commitment, or in a simpler sense, a carryout joint. It’s possible to show up unannounced and order some of Lopez’s trademark Cubinis — think Cuban sandwiches crossed with sliders — but there’s no guarantee he’ll be there, or be ready. And if you’re angling for some of his baked chicken empanadas, forget it; call ahead or be prepared to wait, because these hot pockets take at least 30 minutes in the oven.
But as Lopez will tell you when you meet him, and maybe more than once, he’ll cook for you any time. Leaving the club late and hankering for some of his pinwheel Panini wraps with ham, Swiss, pepperoni, spinach, homemade roasted peppers and a five-cheese blend? Call him up. Have family coming into town and want to score some of his ropa vieja stewed beef and vegetable dish, and maybe some Cuban flan to go with it? Lopez will be ready even if you need to pick it up at 3 a.m., he insists.
To eat at Taste of Cuba, the southwestern Greensboro spot also known as Baby Bolo’z, is to experience a piece of Lopez, and not just through his cooking. The former Jersey boy who spent about a decade in prison in Colorado is quick to share stories about himself over the counter as he prepares food, even with complete strangers.
He’ll point to a crutch built for a child that’s hanging up and share the story of being hit by a car at age 7, or mention that he starred as an extra in the music video for “Trespass” by Ice-T and Ice Cube for the 1992 action film by the same name. Lopez isn’t shy to talk about his time in prison, where members of the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood and Gangster Disciples sat together to eat his cooking — guards and the warden even asked to try his creations, he says. He’ll tell you about the extensive injuries and setbacks he’s suffered, about the battle to take care of his parents and longtime girlfriend, but he’ll also crack jokes and talk about his philosophy on cooking.
He’s not sure if his food qualifies as Cuban fusion exactly — Lopez is Cuban, but he learned to cook from Italians, worked in multiple Jersey pizza places and puts his own touch on everything he makes. He’s trying to make food as healthy as possible — no frying, no fake ingredients, no salt — and people are responding, coming in for his flavorful hot sauce/marinade that features cilantro and about a dozen vegetables.
Lopez has worked just about every kind of job, from driving tractor trailers to floral decorating.
“I’ve got a resume from hell,” he admits, having bounced all over the country and spent time locked up. “There’s nothing I can’t do.”
Now he’s determined to work for himself. The move is partly practical, given his employment history, criminal record and bad knees that would make regular hours a challenge. But it’s also a principled one, Lopez says — he could probably land a job in a kitchen making someone else’s uninspired recipes, but you want the person making your food to be happy and to use high-quality ingredients and methods, he says. After all that he’s been through, including medical crises and deaths in the family, Lopez feels like he owes it to himself to keep pushing.
“I refuse to give up,” he says. “I love what I do.
Later he adds, “I’m here for a reason. I want to see what the outcome is.”
Lopez painted the inside of a small Pinecroft Road storefront bright orange, a hue vibrant enough to fit in at a Syracuse football game. It matches the T-shirt he’s wearing today under his apron decorated with hot peppers. Both of his knees are in braces, and he’s thinking about rubbing some of his sauce on them to see if it will relieve any of the pain.
Lopez is the kind of person whose personality can fill a room, with a commanding yet kind presence and an endlessly talkative nature. He’s as animated as the color of the walls, still bouncing around despite his knees and past injuries, pausing only to make a wisecrack or amorous remark to his girlfriend Cheryl Andre standing nearby.
The first time I showed up at Taste of Cuba, I managed to catch Lopez moments before a planned grocery run. Insisting it was no trouble, he ushered my friend and I inside, sharing stories from his past while prepping his incredibly affordable Cubano and chicken cordon bleu wraps for us to share. As we ate, Lopez brought out some Mountain Dew in champagne glasses, and threw in his French vanilla flan for dessert.
I didn’t mention that I worked as a food writer, only mentioning that my friend Marianne suggested I check him out. That’s just how Lopez is, rolling out the welcome mat and worrying about the future later. He’s proud of running his own legitimate business as an ex con, he says, and just wants to share wholesome, healthy Cuban food with the people around him.
After all, he says, this is the food he makes for himself too, and he swears by it.
Contact George “Bolo” Lopez at 908.577.7539 or find him on Facebook to try some of his delicious cooking, much of it Cuban.