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Have wanderlust and wish you could travel anywhere in the world right now? No need to pack your bags and grab a Passport, because Havana Tropical Grill in downtown Rogers is a sunny island-inspired destination in our very own Arkansas backyard.
Husband and wife team, Francisco Galdamez and Julia Sanchez migrated to the United States almost 30 years ago with the American Dream pounding in their hearts. They both knew that with consistent hard work, dedication and passion, that dream would become a reality.
Eventually, they decided they would open a vibrant Latin restaurant that would be welcoming to anyone who came, and it would have a generous touch of home.
Before arriving here, home was the Dominican Republic for Julia (4th generation) and El Salvador for Francisco. They narrowed in on Cuban food because, as Julia put it, “Well, Dominican Republic wasn’t what people were curious about. Cuba is something they are curious to try. It’s the forbidden island that is intriguing.”
You see, Havana isn’t Caribbean food; it is tropical island food. Tropical island food is the connection between the three islands of Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. So, Cuba seemed like the perfect fit.
“When it comes to those three islands,” says Julia, “food and music is symbolic of who you ARE. So, when you come to Havana Tropical Grill, it’s the music first and then you smell the food. Imagine yourself at the beach, with a drink in your hand, and you immediately get transported to a vacation state.”
In other words, it’s the whole experience.
The original location for Havana Tropical Grill on Walnut opened its doors in 2010. It was a tough road at first because of their passion to open something unique, different and with a little bit of culture.
Francisco and Julia focused on Cuban food because of the diversity in Northwest Arkansas, but they almost closed because they went weeks without a single sale when they first opened.
“A lot of people said it was the location. We had no investors; it was just the two of us. We used all of our savings. But once people came through the door and tasted the food, they fell in love with it and became loyal customers right away.”
Julia also said there were two major contributors that eventually got them noticed.
“Social media opened the marketing doors for us in those early years. And then President Obama went to Cuba. It all hit at once. When people started getting into the Obama political situations with Cuba and social media started picking up in NWA, we started showing up on the radar. People were surprised that we had a Cuban restaurant. All of this happened two years after we opened. Those first two years we stayed opened because of my husband’s passion. He wanted this to work.”
In the fall of 2018, they moved several blocks over to downtown Rogers after falling in love with an old gas station full of charm. It reminded the two of them of a photo they took while visiting Cuba a month or so before. So, they purchased it and got to work fixing it up to reflect the perfect Cuban ambiance.
Julia’s enthusiasm for her husband’s hard work and dedication to consistency is contagious.
“Francisco doesn’t cut corners, it’s all about the freshness of food. His love for food. He cooks every day for our customers like he does for us. That’s what people notice. The flavors. That freshness. When you go in and taste the food, that explosion of flavor that there is nothing like it, you immediately fall in love with it.”
But let’s be clear here… Julia’s love and dedication to the restaurant, the food, the flavors, and the experience is also contagious.
If you want me to tell you which item to order off the menu, the answer is… everything. This is authentic Cuban food using the freshest of ingredients, complimented with superb service in a warm and inviting atmosphere. There’s a full bar with a distinctive assortment of liquors, rums, specialty cocktails, and unbelievably delicious appetizers.
The menu overall is pretty popular, Julia shares. Regular customers have their favorites and when they walk through the door, the first greeting is often, “Welcome back. Do you want your usual today?”
I highly recommend you start with empanadas, a home-style beef picadillo turnover served with homemade sauce. Fair warning: portions are generous!
Some of the popular dishes to mention are the Arroz con Pollo, a home-style favorite of seasoned yellow rice, shredded boneless chicken, onions, bell peppers and Cuban spices. I went straight for the Ropa Vieja, a classic Cuban shredded seasoned beef, cooked with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions in a red wine creole sauce that is served with Congri rice and Tostones (fried green plantains).
Francisco’s favorite is the Vaca Frita, simmered shredded flank steak marinated in mojo and sautéed with onions until crispy. This is served with white rice, Cuban-style black beans and Maduros (fried ripe sweet plantains).
Julia’s favorite? “I created the menu, and everything is my favorite! Okay, okay, the mojito flights are my favorite!”
(Important side note: The Tres Leches Cake got named as one of the best Tres Leches in the country on Yelp!)
Every Saturday night at 9 p.m., Havana Tropical Grill pumps up the volume with Latin music to the beat of Salsa, Merengue and Bachata. This takes place at their original location in Rogers on Walnut Road, across from the Center for Nonprofits.
Julia sincerely hopes that readers will hear their story and hear their hearts. Francisco had always been in the restaurant business, starting from the dishwasher and working his way up to be the purchasing manager at Logan National Airport in Boston. He has trained in Cuba and with Cuban chefs in Miami.
Together, Francisco and Julia have learned by going through it, without financial baking, or having someone mentor them or lead them to suppliers. It’s been trial and error the entire time. But you know what is awesome? They pay it forward.
“God is great and here we are, and now we are helping other people open restaurants in the area as well as Branson, Eureka Springs, and Kansas City. Because we know how hard it is… but it doesn’t have to be this hard. Why would we not give information if we know it? It’s how we are. We believe in the power of paying it forward and sharing.”
Havana Tropical Grill is a home-style restaurant with home-style food. Only elevated.
“We have tried to elevate a lot of the food with ambiance when we opened the new location. At the end of the day, the food is what it is. It’s about your grandma’s cooking and the flavor and that warm feeling you get at the end of the day. That’s what we try to communicate to our customers.”
Note: Havana Tropical Grill was recognized as Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. in 2021.
203 N Second Street
Monday – 11am-9pm
Tuesday – 11am-7pm
Wednesday – 11am-8pm
Thursday-Friday – 11am-9pm
Saturday – 11am-11pm
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