Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
When Carmen’s Café opened in 2005, it had a happy, haphazard look. A diner counter, a handful of tables, arresting artwork on the walls. The Cuban-inspired food was fairly simple, with a pork-and-pickles sandwich, the Cubano, a star of the lunches.
Now that counter is made from carved slabs of ailanthus and there is flooring of birch and cherry and cedar, the handiwork of Jim Lewis of Springwood Studios. But only because he insisted.
The restaurant closed abruptly in 2009, after owner Carmen Gonzalez leased it to a chef who wasn’t able to keep up with the business and fled. “Jim and I were on a vacation,” says Carmen. “We came back and found the place closed. I said to Jim, ‘Let’s patch up the place and sell it,’ and he said, ‘No. We’re going to fix it up and make it an amazing place. It took six months to renovate, and we reopened in 2010.”
It looked charming in its original incarnation, “but now it’s really pretty. Jim did the renovations. It was a complete gut. We did the electrical, we did the plumbing – we did everything. We had a hard time getting people back, but we plugged away at it and we made it work.”
The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, offering a variety of egg-based dishes and other confections, along with the sandwiches and stews and other Cuban fare that she’s known for.
“I’m a breakfast person,” Carmen explains, her speaking style betraying her many years in Manhattan. “Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I’ve become a simple dining person. I work to make it simple. I make my own pancake mix, and everybody’s coming in for my blueberry pancakes, which are out of this world. I also make my own caramel sauce, which I put on my flan French toast. It is amazingly good.”
And that Cubano is made from roasted pork that marinates for two days in a blend of Caribbean seasonings, served on a Portuguese roll with sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles.
Gonzalez grew up in New York City. “But my mother is from Puerto Rico, and my father was Cuban.” She worked for many years as a high-end travel agent. “We booked people who’d say, ‘I want to go on the QE2, I want to sail around the world,’ and they didn’t ask how much it cost. It was wonderful. It was a world I would have never left, but 9/11 happened and travel collapsed.” A visit to a friend in Troy persuaded her to relocate. “I fell in love with Troy. I saw the architecture, it was walkable, it was do-able. It was like a mini-Brooklyn. I fell in love with it.”
From the day she opened her café, the emphasis was on community, with musical performances and other special events on the calendar. And she’s taken it even farther. “When we re-opened up in 2010 and the people started coming back to us, I said to Jim in November, ‘There must be people who have no place to go on Christmas Eve. Why don’t we have a potluck? I’ll make a feast, and all I ask is that you bring a dish to share. The first time out – I thought we’d have about five people – we had 35. Now we’ve been doing it for seven years, and people call us in September to ask if we’re doing it again. Last year we had about 70. It’s become a tradition, and I love it. It’s a way of saying thank you to my crowd.”
The work of local artists decorates the walls. Currently on view are paintings by Albany native and Hudson Valley resident Sara Pruiksma. “She does flowers, which is nice for this time of year. We change the show every two to three months. And we don’t take a commission. The artist is struggling enough already!”
Gonzalez and Lewis have been friends since the restaurant opened, but he nudged her into something closer. “When we met, he became my best, best friend. But just friends. He’d come over, we’d eat, we’d chat about this and chat about that. A year later he asked me out, but I said I was too busy to date. Let’s put it on hold, I said. Eventually I gave in. I said, ‘OK, let’s go out, but I’ve never dated anybody I was friends with first.’ That was ten years ago. And we’re still together. It was very good that we were friends first, because to me the major thing in a relationship is communication.”
Lewis has been a driving force in setting up and publicizing the café and its activities, which means there’s plenty to see on the website, which will guide you to subscribing to café’s newsletter, which will whet your appetite weekly.
Not that Carmen herself won’t inspire some salivation. “This weekend I did homemade sweet potato pancakes,” she tells me. “I put a little scallion and red pepper in it, and that’s it. I cook very simply, because simple is better. One of the chefs who worked with me here taught me how to be easy with food, how to sense what the food is asking for. He gave me instruction, took me to the right place, and now I can do what I need to do. I can put out a real good menu.
She’s tempted to open more than just weekends, which typically are crowded, but she works during the week catering lunches for her granddaughter’s school. “And in the summer, we do the Farmers Market, where I offer a lot of what I have here. Cubanos, scrambled eggs, we do omelets. Sometimes we do our Flamenco stew and put some eggs over it. It changes depending on the weather.” That stew is a tangy mix of chorizo, onions, and potatoes in a tomato broth, served with a grilled Portuguese roll.
So she’s staying busy, but has a simple explanation for what keeps her going. “My customers. I love them. My customers are keeping me in this business which is so unbelievably difficult, the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life.”
Carmen’s Café, 198 First Street, Troy, 272-3011, Open Saturday & Sunday 9 – 4