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Santiago’s Celebrates Cuban American Food and Culture in Burlington


Published September 19, 2023 at 1:55 p.m.
Updated September 20, 2023 at 10:09 a.m.

Ropa vieja with tostones and red beans - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ropa vieja with tostones and red beans

Oscar Arencibia and Luis Calderin will not be surprised on the day that Cuban-born movie star Ana de Armas shows up at Santiago's Cuban Cuisine, the long-anticipated restaurant they finally opened in Burlington's Main Street Landing on August 4.

De Armas, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, recently bought a house in southern Vermont, the business partners said.

"She will come," Calderin said confidently. "I don't know how you'd be a Cuban in Vermont and not ever come to Burlington and not be curious about the one Cuban restaurant."

Santiago's co-owners Arencibia, 47, and Calderin, 49, have a broader goal beyond offering a menu of Cuban and Cuban American classics — such as the caramelized ripe plantains known as platanos; slow-cooked ropa vieja of beef, peppers and onions; and a meticulously executed Cubano sandwich.

De Armas is already on what Calderin and Arencibia have dubbed "the Cuban wall of fame," the first thing that guests see when they enter the restaurant foyer. The photographic homage to notable Cuban Americans features actors Andy Garcia and Cameron Diaz; Grammy Award winner Gloria Estefan; singer Celia Cruz, "the queen of salsa"; and Oscar Nuñez of "The Office."

"It's very intentional," said Calderin, the restaurant's general manager. The wall demonstrates the range of Cuban identity, he said, from "Afro-Cuban Black to Cameron Diaz, who's seen as white girl as they get."

Sitting recently at a table in Santiago's, the pair of first-generation Cuban American restaurateurs said their main goal is to share their culture through traditional and family recipes. Around them, the thoroughly renovated 76-seat space boasted striking lakeside views, eye-catching Spanish tile floors and a jungle of tropical plants — both real ones and depictions on the fancifully papered walls.

Oscar Arencibia (left) and Luis Calderin - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Oscar Arencibia (left) and Luis Calderin

But the restaurant also has a "secret mission," said Arencibia, the executive chef, "[of] having a place for our people — Black and brown people that live in this community — to come and feel like they have a home."

The two understand firsthand how it feels to seek out those connections and how food can spark them.

Calderin first messaged Arencibia after learning of his Santiago's Cuban food pop-ups, which Arencibia launched in April 2021 from rented kitchen space at Zachary's Pizza in South Burlington.

"Luis was like, 'Hey, who are you? What's your story?'" Arencibia recalled.

Both men's families were among those who left Cuba in the early 1970s following the Cuban Revolution. Calderin, who moved from Miami to Burlington when he was 12, had long dreamed of opening a Cuban restaurant to connect the area's diasporic Spanish-speaking community. In the meantime, he built a successful marketing and communications career, worked as a DJ, and hobnobbed with the glitterati during his job rallying the youth vote for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Arencibia is a more recent transplant to Vermont. He arrived in 2015 after leaving his hometown of West New York, N.J., and his career in restaurant kitchens to work in solar energy.

The two became friends and then business partners on the pop-ups, which moved to Essex Junction before landing in what is now Butter Bar & Kitchen in Burlington's New North End for a four-month trial run of Santiago's de la Avenida Norte.

Piña con nada, mojito, and Creole shrimp with platanos and black beans - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Piña con nada, mojito, and Creole shrimp with platanos and black beans

The name Santiago's dates back to around 2009, Arencibia said, when he and a friend aspired to start a food business in the region of West New York, home to a high concentration of Cuban Americans. He would have been happy, he said, with a "hole-in-the-wall like the cafeterías I grew up with."

The restaurant that Arencibia and Calderin eventually opened is far from a hole-in-the-wall. Despite its menu of unfussy Cuban recipes, Santiago's feels like a classy, island-accented destination where your abuela and, say, Ana de Armas would feel equally welcome.

Especially in the dark depths of winter, Calderin said, "I hope this place helps people feel like they're taking a little vacation."

The business partners said they wanted to create a restaurant that demonstrates how much they value their community. A combination of crowdfunding and personal and private investments contributed to a build-out budget of upwards of several hundred thousand dollars, Calderin said.

"If I did have a hole-in-the-wall, I'd still be as proud," Arencibia said, "but there's a whole other level to this, because we're able to serve this community and showcase our culture with more gravitas, more meaning."

The resulting vibe is refreshingly "very not Vermont, which I love," one of my dining companions said. That applies to everything from the décor to the playlists of rumba, salsa and Afro-Latin music to Calderin's way of hosting the dining room like it's his living room — stopping by every table, switching fluidly between Spanish and English.

During my first meal at Santiago's, my party of three ordered two Cuban staples: lechón asado ($19), soft, shredded, roasted pork shoulder marinated in garlic, cumin, oregano and sour orange; and a beefy tangle of deeply flavored ropa vieja ($23). We also had the pollo asado, a slow-roasted, tender-as-butter bone-in chicken leg made with the same citrusy mojo as the pork.

All were seasoned and cooked well enough to make Abuela proud — although Arencibia concurred that it's a pity he can't currently source skin-on pork shoulder, which would deliver the delectably crunchy shards of skin of which dreams are made.

Tres leches cake and flan - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tres leches cake and flan

Each main (except for the Cubano) comes with white rice and a choice of two sides among several starches and beans. I am a huge fan of the deeply caramelized maduros, in which the plantain's ripe sweetness balances its natural tang. The black beans and red beans are also both excellent. The latter, which cost an extra $1 as a main side, are Calderin's Tía (Aunt) Elsa's recipe cooked with two tropical root vegetables, boniato and malanga, plus pumpkin and three types of pork. To provide a vegetarian option, Arencibia said, the kitchen makes the black beans without pork fat, departing from his family recipe.

On that note, vegetarians and vegans could make a satisfying meal of the side dishes and salads, though their choice of mains is currently limited to a version of picadillo in which textured vegetable protein subs for the ground beef. Cooked with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes and studded with olives, it's $18 with either protein.

Many gluten-free diners, by contrast, will find that they can eat most of the items on the menu — much to the delight of the friend who joined my husband and me during our first Santiago's meal.

That friend, who also minimizes her alcohol consumption, was equally delighted by the rich, not too sweet piña con nada ($8), a nonalcoholic version of the tropical cocktail. My husband and I were similarly happy with our spirited cocktails: a minty mojito ($12) and Hotel Nacional ($14), a sweet-tart rum cocktail named for Havana's most famous hotel.

The piña con nada would make a more than acceptable dessert alternative if you're not tempted by Arencibia's Abuela Nancy's recipe for caramel-slicked flan ($8) or the sweet, milk-drenched tres leches cake crowned with torched whipped meringue ($8.50).

The one disappointment of my two meals was the red snapper ceviche ($16) appetizer, which lacked the bracing doses of citrus and salinity that I expect and love in such preparations. I tried it both nights in case I had hit it on an off night, gladly crunching through the accompanying trio of housemade root chips made with plantains, boniato and malanga.

Cubano sandwich - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Cubano sandwich

During my second meal, a friend and I shared the Cubano sandwich ($16) and the Creole shrimp ($28). The latter, to my surprise, was a highlight of my Santiago's dining experiences to date: perfectly cooked shrimp swimming in a chunky tomato and bell pepper sauce generously seasoned with cumin.

Arencibia and Calderin take their Cubano very seriously. The result is a textbook example that, they claim, has brought many Cuban American diners at Santiago's to tears.

The much-riffed-on sandwich reportedly owes its components to the global mix of immigrants working in south Florida's cigar-rolling factories. Arencibia and Calderin are purists who have carefully considered each ingredient and step, from the shredded lechón and smoked ham to the kosher dill pickles and yellow mustard slathered "end to end," Arencibia said. The chef detailed that "a little bit of butter on the top of the bread gives it a nice crunchy gloss" when it emerges from the sandwich press.

The pair proudly sources the bread from the historic La Segunda bakery in Tampa, Fla. Arencibia recounted how his paternal grandfather would drive 90 miles there from his home in Orlando to "get, like, 10 or 20 loaves at a time, bring it home and stick it in his freezer."

That level of detail is just one way Santiago's pays homage to Arencibia's and Calderin's forebears. At the same time, they look forward in hopes of creating something for the next generation — including their four kids, ages 1 to 23.

"These are the type of homestyle recipes that have existed for generations," Calderin said. "This is comfort food. This is home food. This is our soul food."

Burlington is lucky that they are happy to share.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bringing Havana Home | Santiago's celebrates Cuban American food and culture in Burlington"

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