For Katy Ugalde and her husband, Greg Butler, Sagua La Grande Cuban Cafe is a symbol of resilience, perseverance and the fruitful pursuit of their Cuban-American dream. Sandwiched between Booches and Harold’s Doughnuts in downtown Columbia, Missouri, the restaurant is the city’s first Cuban café, serving dishes that have been passed down through generations of the Ugalde family.
Why did you want to specialize in Cuban food? It’s completely different from American food. [At Sagua La Grande], I’m serving food from my hometown: ropa vieja, chuletas de puerco [marinated pork chops], the Cubano sandwich, yuca frita [fried yuca tossed in mojo sauce] and more. Even the name [of the restaurant] is from there. –Katy Ugalde [Cuban cuisine] is similar to French cooking. It’s not the same, but similar. We utilize root vegetables, peppers, bay leaf, cumin; Cubans don’t have shallots and wine, but they do have onions, beer and limes, not to mention, croquettes. –Greg Butler
Can you describe the national dish of Cuba, ropa vieja? It’s cooked in a pressure cooker two separate times. After the first round, you shred the beef and then put it back in, which is when you make the sauce and vegetables that go with it. It’s usually made with flank steak or skirt steak. Ironically, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) criminalized the illegal consumption of beef in 1979. To this day, beef is pretty much an unattainable luxury for Cuban nationals, so the dish is consumed by only expats and tourists in Cuba. –G.B.
Tell us about your experience in the restaurant industry. I was born into it: Everyone in my family – besides an aunt who is a teacher – is involved in the restaurant industry in one way or another. [In 1997], when I moved to the U.S. – Dallas, Texas, first – I didn’t speak a word of English. The French chef-owner of Tony’s Wine Warehouse, who also spoke a little Spanish, gave me a job waiting tables. He was the first person to give me a chance and I worked for him for 10 years. He’s also the one who encouraged me to learn English. When I moved to Columbia in 2010, I had honed my skills in the kitchen and I thought maybe one day I could open my own restaurant; that day is today. –K.U.
Sagua La Grande Cuban Café, 114 S. 9th St., Suite 101, Columbia, Missouri, 573.818.1766, sagualagrandecomo.com