With “Taste of Havana” leaving Broad Ripple, the neighborhood loses more than great Cuban sandwiches, food bowls, rice and beans, coconut flan, and rich Cuban coffee; it loses what was left of its soul. When George Chalgub and his daughter Diana Mireles opened their restaurant at 816 Broad Ripple Avenue on August of 2013, I felt a revival of the spirit of the street that was “Main Street when I was growing up at 6129 Winthrop and attending School #80 (now a condo, like nearly all of the former houses on the Monon side of the 6100 block of Winthrop.)
Those were the good old days when “Broad Ripple Avenue” was still 63rd Street and Broad Ripple was a great neighborhood, not yet a “Village.” (It became a “Village” in 1969, around the time that “The Lower East Side” of Manhattan renamed itself “The East Village” to justify raising rents by claiming to be an extension of the original Greenwich Village. They at least had the rationale of proximity for their name-changing rent raise. The so-called “village” of Broad Ripple becomes bigger, more crowded, and less village-like every day (I have yet to see any tepees or leprechauns in the vicinity.)
The reason the Cuban restaurant reminds me of the days when the “Avenue” was simply 63rd Street is that George Chalub, the owner of “Taste of Havana” carries on real conversations with his customers, the kind of friendly and interesting talk that I used to hear at Gene Purcell’s Pure Oil gas station that sat on the corner of 63rd and Winthrop. I used to hang out there after classes were over at School #80 in hopes of hearing talk by the Broad Ripple basketball players who liked to stop in and get peanuts from the penny machine . People who got their gas filled or their oil changed or any kind of repair work done on their car often got out and went in to the “office” to shoot the breeze with Gene or other customers who were usually neighbors.
It’s not just in Broad Ripple, of course, that people now mainly talk to their phones or just stare at them. “Taste of Havana” discourages such behavior, unless it’s for a good cause. One of the signs on the wall expressing George’s philosophy announces: “NO WIFI. Call your mother. Talk to her. Pretend it’s 1996.” Another of George’s suggestions begins “Start with the best coffee around. [It’s been voted Best in Indiana.]” The recommendations for some of the restaurants finest dishes closes with this advice: “Now sip your coffee, enjoy the company and LIFE.”
George likes to talk. He likes to talk to his customers, find out where they’re from and what they like, make sure they enjoyed whatever he served them, making sure they top it off with a shot of the dark, sweet Cuban coffee that comes with every meal and gives a nice boost to your day.
I have a special affection for “Taste of Havana,” because my God Daughter from Miami came to live here with me while she went to Harrison College to study veterinary medicine and she needed a part time job. Just when she was getting on a lot of waiting lists but no jobs, I happened to walk by “A Taste of Havana” and saw a sign in the window that said “Now Hiring.” I ran-jogged huffed and puffed my way back to our half of a double on 61st Street, and breathlessly said to Karina “Get down to this place and speak some Spanish!” She did, and learned that George had gone to Coral Gables High School, the rival of her own Miami Senior High – the job was hers. She became friends with George and his daughter Diana and had an instant Cuban home-away-from-home as well as a part-time job. She made the Dean’s List at Harrison, became certified as a veterinary assistant, and now works at an animal hospital in Miami.
A year ago I was in “Taste of Havana” on a Saturday when a pub crawl of the burgeoning bars in Broad Ripple Avenue was underway. George was fuming.
“They’re always sponsoring events to help the bars” George said – referring to The Broad Ripple Village Association – “never anything to help us.” The bar scene is the scene on Broad Ripple avenue now, especially on Saturday nights and holidays. Early in the morning hours of a 4th of July celebration in 2014, seven people were shot on Broad Ripple avenue, a block from “Taste of Havana” when my God Daughter was working there. Fortunately, she had long been safe at home. I had felt relief when I knew she was coming to live in my old neighborhood for a year, thinking she would be in a safer place than in Miami. I was thinking of the Broad Ripple of my childhood, not the one of 2014 and today.
Broad Ripple boasts that its bars stay open till 3AM, establishing a mecca for partying young people and their teeny-bopper followers who fill up on “Insomnia Cookies” (one of the few stores that’s left) while waiting for the boys to come out of the bars. But the daytimes are no longer populating the Avenue with strollers to windowshop and frequent stores – there are five empty storefronts between Carrolton and College, and last week two more stores closed on the corner of the Avenue and College and just around the corner on College. Between Guilford and College on Broad Ripple Avenue I counted eleven bars last week – and, symbolically enough, the office of the BRVA was right in the middle of them.
George is preparing to take “Taste of Havana” north to 8329 Michigan Road at 86th Street, opening in January. He’ll stay open at the current stand on Broad Ripple Avenue – between Carrolton and Guilford – for the next few months, so it’s a last chance to enjoy the great Cuban bread of the sandwiches, the fresh pork and ham and cheese and steak and turkey that fill them, and the un-matchable Cuban coffee to top off the your feast. It’s also a last chance to shut down your phone and talk to friends while you eat, or sit at the counter and talk to George, who will make sure you’re happy with what he serves you, and talk about anything else that’s on your mind – or his. He brought back the neighborhood spirit of the old Broad Ripple, and for me, he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.