What do Lebron James, Miami, downtown Harrisonburg, and great food have to do with each other? As a fan of team loyalty and commitment in professional sports, I was with the throng of Cleveland fans who thought Lebron James’s decision to “take his talents to South Beach” was the most selfish and self-promoting act in professional sports history. I had personally committed to never root for anything from Miami as long as LBJ continued to razzle and dazzle with his showy moves on the court and his even showier wardrobe and persona off the court, even as his downtrodden community in Ohio continues to struggle financially in a very depressed economy.
That all changed during a recent visit to one of the most unique eateries in the ever-growing downtown Harrisonburg restaurant scene. CubanBurger, operated out of Wine on Water’s location at 70 West Water Street, is truly an experience you won’t forget. General Manager Steve Pizarro has been staying busy making authentic, scrumptious, and incredibly well-priced grub that is sure to satisfy even the most choosy of taste buds. Pizarro has directly promoted his business by providing quality service to each customer who comes through the door of Wine on Water, and this in turn has led to customers coming back, as well as telling people they know about their experience.
“We have a lot of business from word-of-mouth advertising,” says Pizarro, who credits the people who live and work downtown in the Friendly City for helping his name get known.
“Everyone is so hospitable and nice here,” he states, referring to the Harrisonburg area. “You don’t see many people leaving town; they are sticking around, having kids, and starting their lives here.” That is what led Pizarro to consider opening up his business in Harrisonburg.
Formerly hailing from Miami, Pizarro vacationed at Bryce Resort in Bayse, VA and got to experience and become familiar with the surrounding area. Feeling stuck in his job in IT Healthcare, Pizarro says his true passion was to work in the restaurant business to create a unique, yet simple product for customers. Visits to the college town of Harrisonburg during his vacations sparked him to consider relocating from Miami. While he started on a smaller scale, selling authentic Cuban burgers at Cave Ridge Vineyard, Pizarro felt that more people wanted his product and that there were definitely revenue opportunities in downtown Harrisonburg.
Wine on Water, Cave Ridge Vineyard’s tasting room in downtown Harrisonburg, provided a perfect opportunity for Pizarro to open on a small scale, although he has ambitions to grow larger. Featuring wines from local Shenandoah Valley wineries such as Cave Ridge Vineyard, Bluestone Vineyards, and Barren Ridge Vineyards among others, Wine on Water offered Pizarro a mutually-beneficial opportunity to operate CubanBurger out of their location on Water Street. Pizarro respects and recognizes that much of his business comes from patrons of Wine on Water, who can order his food while enjoying the wide variety of wines offered, yet he also wants to promote his delectable menu to those who work and live downtown.
“I would say the majority of my business comes from people who live and work here in Harrisonburg,” states Pizarro. The store also gets heavy foot traffic from people walking around and shopping at the many stores that have helped create Harrisonburg’s vibrant downtown. But, Pizzaro says there are still many who haven’t heard of, or experienced, what CubanBurger is all about.
One of the fundamental elements of CubanBurger is simplicity. The Fritas Sliders I tried seemed extremely simple, and at the same time were unique and authentic. Pizarro uses locally-sourced meats from Country Roads Farms, and the sliders are a mixture of beef and pork, which Pizarro blends with spices to create a milder form of Chorizo. The result is incredible. Although the only product on the sliders other than the meat was ketchup, the taste told a different story. The burger was juicy, extremely flavorful, and yet light at the same time, unlike your traditional patty on a bun.
Likewise, the fried plantains are relatively self-explanatory and simple, but also combine authentic and chef-inspired ingredients. Pizarro starts with a green plantain (similar to a banana) which he slices and fries, then flattens and fries again. But the mojo sauce for dipping that accompanies the plantains, and is featured on other sandwiches on the menu, is anything but ordinary. Consisting of a combination of onion, garlic, and citrus, Pizarro credits his sister-in-law for forming this variation of the distinct sauce.
“It’s basically a traditional mojo sauce, with a little tomato sauce added to give it color for presentation,” Pizzaro says. The sauce is light, and yet has a bit of zest and full-body flavor. It was so good that I demanded a to-go container for the extra sauce. The pairing of Bluestone Vineyard’s Beau white wine was the perfect complement to the citrus in the mojo, and I instantly recognized the connection between Pizarro’s craft and the fine wines featured on the wine list at Wine on Water. It is an art, a skill, and evidence of the passion behind the doors leading to the kitchen of CubanBurger.
“That’s why I love what I do,” says Pizarro as a patron compliments him on his Cuban Sandwich. Instant customer feedback and immediate reaction to the art of his craft make him realize why he pursued starting CubanBurger. “I waited six, eight, twelve months before I got any feedback when I was doing Information Technology. Now, you can tell when someone takes that first bite…they either like it or don’t. Someone saying, ‘eh, it was okay’ is a bummer for me,” says Pizarro.
As I finish the last bite of my Miami-Style Cuban Burger (Miami-Style meaning only onion and ketchup with matchstick fries on the side), I think about Pizarro’s ties to Miami where he first started perfecting his Cuban burgers. “Are you a Lebron fan?” I ask, as I think through loyalty to my hallowed sports teams. “I’m a fan of the Miami Heat, so in a way,” Pizarro states. I smile to myself. At least he is one talent South Beach doesn’t have any more.
Derek Blyer is a member of the HDR Promotions Committee.