Willy Martinez invites eaters to share in his Cuban food dream
Mexican food has long dominated the American dining landscape when it comes to Latin cuisine. It’s something longtime restaurateur Willy Martinez experienced firsthand, dating back to his two decades working over at Don Juan’s, a since-shuttered Westbury Mexican restaurant. The Cuban native, who came to the United States when he was nine, always dreamed of running a place that featured his home country’s food. He achieved his goal by opening Garden City’s The Cuban back in June.
Located on 987 Stewart Ave., Martinez’s eatery greets guests with a pair of 1957 Chevrolets parked outside, the restaurant’s neon logo complete with a palm tree and a wonderfully helpful staff attired in traditional guayabera shirts and white straw fedoras. And while the aesthetic touches range from a portrait of late Cuban diva Celia Cruz hanging on the wall to the playing of music by the Buena Vista Social Club and songs like “Guantanamera” contributing to the organic Latin vibe, Martinez is as proud of the food as he is of the decor he and his wife picked for their business. He’s also found there’s been a bit of a learning curve for people more used to tamales and burritos.
“My cuisine I know well, but it’s different when it comes to customers. There aren’t that many Cuban restaurants around, so you have to educate people,” he said. “Different kinds of cuisine have black beans, but the flavor [when it comes to Cuban food] is different. The white rice isn’t the same kind that you get at a Colombian place or even a Japanese restaurant. It’s thoroughly different. The process is different. The pernil and ropa vieja also takes much more time to prepare.”
While Martinez is living his dream of running and owning a Cuban restaurant, his experience working at Don Juan’s dovetailed into the first place he opened being East Meadow’s Margarita’s, which has a Mexican food menu. He’s since launched four more locations in Merrick, Hicksville, Smithtown and Wantagh. At around 200 seats, The Cuban is the inaugural establishment featuring his native cuisine. Next year will find him opening a sister restaurant in downtown Patchogue. Having briefly stepped away from the food service industry, Martinez found that he missed it. After briefly spending time as a server and a manager at an Italian restaurant, he took the small business ownership plunge in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Having started in the industry as a dishwasher at J. Sprats, another defunct Westbury establishment, Martinez has found his experience and longevity have made this transition a little easier.
“Because I’ve been around the restaurant business for so long, people know me. They come in and some of them don’t even know that I’m here and that I own the place,” he said. “But because I’m very personable with my customers, it helps out a lot as far as having success and keeping the business growing.”