Nobel Garcia came to Boston by way of Santa Clara, Cuba in 1956 at the age of 9 and watched his family’s businesses take root in Jamaica Plain: his uncles' Miami Sub and , and his parents’ Garcia’s Superette.
As a teenager in the '60s, he worked at Tropical Foods, a small shop he had a hand in introducing Spanish food to back when it wasn’t yet sold in Boston, and then helped his parents run Garcia's. While working as a supervisor at a Framingham paper mill in the ’90s, Garcia would help out his uncle Evaristo Cambara and his daughter Emia at Oriental de Cuba in the evening and later came on full-time. Garcia took over the business in 2003 and saw it through a renovation following a devastating fire in 2005.
He takes pride in serving Cuban cuisine, bringing a bit of home to JP. On a busy Saturday afternoon at the Centre Street mainstay, Spanish and English mingled in the air as cooks prepared specialties like ropa vieja, empanizado, and chicken fricassee.
Garcia took some time to talk about his love for Cuban cuisine and the JP community.
What is the origin of the name?
The name El Oriental de Cuba the name came from one of the provinces in Cuba, Oriente, where my uncle came from. He started a small sub shop right on Centre Street in front of the Blessed Sacrament Church called Miami Sub. When his brothers came he passed that onto them and then he sat on those stairs across the street at the library looking for a business to open for himself. So he finally rented 426 Centre and he opened up El Oriental de Cuba.
What is the key to Cuban food?
It’s a secret (laughs). The basic ingredients are cumin, coriander, culantro, onions, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, cilantro. Anyone can make anyone’s dream dish come true with these ingredients if they're fresh and used in the right manner. And we make mainly roast pork, black bean rice, yucca, breaded steak, sweet plantains, milkshakes or smoothies.
All Cubans can cook. My mother, my grandmother. My uncle started the business with white rice, chicken soup, black beans, plantains, and then started growing the menu to include more Cuban food.
How does it feel to be able to continue a piece of your culture here?
It’s great. I think it’s good to keep your heritage. And the food feels like home, of course. We try to make it just the same way if we were to do it at home.
What makes your restaurant stand out?
The consistency and flavor of the food, the friendliness of the people, the place. We don’t advertise too much, just word of mouth. We do lot of catering to universities—UMass, Tufts, MIT, Northeastern, BU—on a small scale for Spanish students.
And it’s a neighborhood restaurant.
I sustain myself and my employees through the neighborhood. That’s why it has to be a neighborhood restaurant.
Tell me about the Latino community here.
There are quite a few Latino businesses and we all fit with everybody else. It’s what you put on the plate for the people. We have a lot repeat customers. Competition is good.
How do you like doing business in JP?
It’s a great community. I wouldn’t change it for any community in the world.
Jamaica Plain has everything. At night young people come here for the bars. One group of people is going to bed and the other going out. The community is growing. Just give us some parking and we'll continue to grow.
What was your favorite dish growing up?
White rice, black beans with a couple of fried eggs and sweet plantains.
And at Oriental de Cuba?
Seafood rice or the breaded steak with white rice, black beans, and sweet plantains or the Cuban sandwich with some tostones.