Highlands Cuban restaurant officially reopens
By Mary Ann Bourbeau
HIGHLANDS – After experiencing the devastating wind and flood waters that Hurricane Irene brought to the East Coast in August 2011, some business owners might have been tempted to throw in the towel. But not Ralphie Amado.
He was determined to rebuild Havana Tropical, a little slice of Cuban paradise, that first opened on Bay Avenue in 2007.
With insurance money in hand, Amado spent the next eight months working on the restaurant, which had taken in about 3 feet of water. Havana finally reopened in April 2012. All was going smoothly until Oct. 29, 2012, when Super Storm Sandy made landfall on the Jersey Shore and brought devastation to the small fishing town.
Nearly 7 feet of water flowed into Amado’s restaurant, destroying just about everything in the building. This time, Amado had no flood insurance. In the wake of trying to rebuild, he inadvertently forgot to renew his policy.
“I was still working on the place from Irene, and Sandy completely destroyed it,” he said.
For a while after Sandy, no one was sure if Havana would reopen – including Amado. He knew it would take more work and more money than he had. But Amado, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 11, isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I don’t go down that easy.”
A lesser man might have been pushed over the edge when, a month after Sandy, Amado said burglars broke into Havana and stole 40 cases of beer and wine, among other things.
The Elizabeth resident compares his tenacity to that of a baseball coach who must endure whatever losses come his way and keep moving forward.
“I love the game,” said the married father of six, who coaches Linden youth baseball in his spare time. “We Cubans have a passion for baseball. You never get discouraged. You just come back and win the next game.”
Amado also has a passion for the food of his native country, and so do his customers. That’s why he was determined to rebuild after Sandy, no matter what it took.
“People ask me why I opened a Cuban restaurant here when there are no Cubans,” he said. “Cuban cuisine is very popular throughout the world and I wanted to introduce it to people. Most of my customers are American.”
Amado sold his jewelry and two cars, and estimates he borrowed about $150,000 to get the place up and running again. He said he received a state grant about a month ago to help rebuild the restaurant, which includes an indoor dining area and bar and a banquet room. There is also an outdoor patio with a giant pond and waterfall, where thousands of dollars’ worth of fish were among the casualties from Sandy. Amado, his friends and a slew of volunteers have worked tirelessly to get the restaurant up and running again.
“I’m grateful to everyone from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good summer and make some of that money back.”
Havana Tropical began opening on weekends in August. Amado held a grand reopening on May 22 during which Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno was on hand to cut the ribbon at his and three other Highlands eateries.
“Highlands has continued to show resilience as they continue to cope with the devastating destruction of homes and businesses,” Guadagno said. “All across our state, communities large and small are transforming and rebuilding. As we enter the summer months, this administration remains committed to the rebuilding process and we encourage everyone to continue to support these areas and make them a destination during your summer travels.”
A sign now hangs outside Havana Tropical stating: “We’re Back and Better Than Ever.”
Amado is definitely back, and serving the Cuban sandwiches, paella, roast pork and grilled chorizo that his customers have come to know and love. While he admits it may have taken him longer than some other businesses to recover from Sandy, he chalks it up to his heritage.
“Cubans are well-known for being late,” he said. “We’ll even be late for our own funeral.”
Havana, located at 408 Bay Ave., Highlands, is currently open five days a week, closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. There is live music on the weekends. Additional information is available by calling 732-708-0000 or by visiting www.havanatropicalnj.com.
Vibe writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.