Jackson County Times

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

It’s Not Just Cuban at Habana Express Baseball, hot dogs and...Cuban food!

By Bo McMullian

Think of it as “freedom food.” The next time you’re at the MERE ballparks in Marianna enjoying baseball, hot dogs and other American activities, have some real freedom cuisine-- food cooked and prepared by Cuban Americans, located just a short mile away from the ball parks..

Maria Valiente, owner of Habana Express (formerly Hartsfield’s grocery on Caverns Road and State Road 71) was only 14 years old when, in 1966, President Fidel Castro briefly allowed an exodus for those who wanted and had the means to leave before his Communist government took effect. Maria, her five-year-old sister and their mother were allowed to fly to Miami as free people. Her father had died a few months earlier and she tells the story of her grandmother who was left behind and finally drank poison and died as her way of escaping the pain of the separation.

“We’ve never been illegal,” Maria told the TIMES on Tuesday. “We obtained passports and were allowed to apply for papers upon arrival. My mom wanted freedom for us. The freedom to do as we wished and not to do as Castro said we must. We came to America because of Castro. He’s a very bad man. We love the United States.”

Maria and family have been chasing the American dream, entrepreneur-style, ever since. They eventually went into the restaurant business. Six years ago, Maria was able to make a huge profit by selling her restaurant in Hialeah. She bought a house in Leesburg but ended up selling that too, at a handsome profit--naturally, and then moved to Marianna to be near relatives.

She bought Foran’s Grocery on State Road 73 south of town and opened the Habana Express, a highly unlikely location for a Cuban place, but that’s Maria. She takes risks. She’s a businesswoman and always has been. Two years ago she bought Hartsfield’s. The Foran building is now closed and up for sale.

She’s struggling at the location that proved so profitable for many years for the late Idus Hartsfield and his family, dating back to the 1980s. She can’t seem to bring about the “cultural shot” she desires for folks to take a chance on Cuban food, although it’s not just Cuban anymore. Habana Express has a deli serving fresh-cooked country food every day, a meat and two vegetables for $4.99.

“I’ve tried everything,” Maria said. “I can’t get the high school or the ballparks crowd over here. I’ve expanded hours until 9 p.m. That didn’t work.” She expects to begin staying open late again soon. But her luck may be about to change. She found out after she bought Hartsfield’s that the county planned to build a new health department complex--across the street. In February, groundbreaking was held for the $11 million facility, expected to open in the spring 0f 2011.

That would be perfect for Maria. She’s a devout Christian and knows where good things originate. Helping her run the restaurant and convenience store is her daughter Yami and husband Robert, who have two sons Oscar, 16, and Joseph, 8 step-daughter Yendy, grandson Victor and live-in niece Celina Delgado. 17. She stopped selling cigarettes and beer because of her faith. “I want to glorify God,” she said. “So I took them out.” She attends the Mission Bautista Esperanza church in Marianna. And her faith remains strong despite the income reduction. “Hopefully, the health department is the answer to our prayers,” she said. “It’s been hard. I’ve had the cable and the phone cut off, but I believe that God didn’t bring me this far to lose everything.”

Habana Express remains the only eatery with Cuban food in town, and as far as we know, in the entire area. For a morning jolt you won’t forget, try their “Cuban coffee,” the original high energy drink, served in a large shot glass. The other Cuban selections are “well-seasoned,” according to Yami, “but not spicy” like Mexican Food, “a big difference.” They include authentic Cuban sandwiches, cafe con leche (similar to a latte), pastries--a dessert, croquetas--containing ham ground into a paste, and empanadas--dough baked with ham and cheese or ground beef or spinach.

So, if you are out at the MERE complex watching ball games, and aren’t in the mood for another hot dog….remember, a delicious Cuban sandwich is just down the road. The people of Jackson County will hopefully try to support this local business.

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