From their familia to yours
Latin American Cafe serves Cuban home cooking that’s delicious and affordable.
Manny Camps, left, and his daughter, Mia, center, and his wife, Isabel, right, pose with one of their signature dishes, a Cuban Breaded Steak, at the Latin American Cafe in Oakbrook Plaza on Northeast 14th Street in Ocala on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
Serving dishes prepared with fresh produce and extra virgin olive oil, and fresh bread made by La Segunda Bakery, Latin American Cafe serves homestyle Cuban favorites to a loyal posse of regular customers during lunch and early dinner hours.
The quality of this eatery’s entrees, breakfast, sandwiches and desserts is on par and often exceeds the specialties of more expensive Cuban-Spanish restaurants.
Their menu comprises staples such as the Cuban sandwich, the media noche sandwich, bistec empanizado (batter-fried steak), black beans and rice, and creamy-dreamy flan for dessert. The pastries are baked fresh twice daily and the cafe con leche is fresh brewed with espresso. Fresh fruit dishes are refreshing and nourishing, prepared with ice like a smoothie or with milk similar to a creamy smoothie or milkshake.
The eatery will be expanded soon, adding around 40 more customers to its capacity.
A small patio outside accommodates dog owners with a cold bowl of water.
Specialties such as red snapper and oxtail are available on certain days or by request (call in advance to find out if available).
For lunch, you can order a $10.50 meal that includes a main course, rice and beans (red or black beans, yellow or white rice), and a third side with a choice of plantains, tostones, yucca or French fries. Save calories and a few dollars with the half-Cuban, beans and rice, plus choice of soup or fries for $7.
“We always use olive oil, trim the fat from our meat, and don’t cut corners on quality, even though I could save money by doing things differently,” owner Manny Camps emphasized.
On our visit, the chicken fricase served during the Thursday lunch special was fall-off-the-bone tender and didn’t have any extra fat, and the sauce was rendered delicately but flavorfully. Even with this attention to detail, Latin American Cafe’s plates and sandwiches can be enjoyed for prices comparable to fast-casual chain eateries with fewer accommodations to customer requests and far less homestyle goodness.
If you’re new to Cuban food, it’s about as close to an actual melting pot you’re going to find, with recipes that include a heaping helping of Spanish/Mediterranean cuisine, some indigenous influences, and tropical fruits, vegetables, and spices from Asia and Africa by way of the Caribbean.
And as with Mediterranean foods, the spices aren’t heavy-handed. Garlic is a co-star, not the main attraction.
The savory sauces and stews on Latin American Cafe’s menu originate from specialties prepared by Camps’ mother, whom he affectionately calls a “Cuban hillbilly” who, he claims, could make more money selling her dishes than her husband, Manny’s father, took home as an attorney.
“My mom had a green thumb when it came to cooking,” Camps said, adding that she was one of those cooks who didn’t rely on recipes and measurements.
Camps’ wife, Isabel—an artist when not working at the restaurant—learned Cuban cooking from her mother-in-law. Over the years, Camps translated his mom’s dishes into written recipes to be prepared by the cooks at his restaurant and passed them down to their two children, Mia and Ethan, who help out at the café and attend college (Mia at Valencia College and Ethan at the College of Central Florida).
“To me, cooking is a touch,” Camps said between greeting regulars. “I can honestly say that our food tastes so good thanks to my wife, and when I met her she hated the kitchen and could burn boiling water! But she learned how to cook amazingly.”
Camps, 64, cares about his legacy, which has been on his mind since he almost died twice from a stroke and, later, COVID-19 complications.
He has diabetes and hypertension and was at high risk for death from coronavirus. In a medically induced coma for nearly six months in 2020, Camps lost 64 pounds throughout the ordeal and had a special “heart massaging” pacemaker implanted.
The Camps’ kids and cook Maria Pelico, prep cook Carmelina Gonzalez and line cook Olga Calel kept running the restaurant when Camps was in the hospital.
“They did a phenomenal job,” he said.
Camps doesn’t let his troubles get him down. He bops around his restaurant, greeting customers by their first name. On our visit, he checked in on a friend coping with cancer treatment, discussing doctor appointments and medications in Spanish.
Camps hopes the expanded space will be completed by this summer or fall at the latest. He praises his contractor, Ram Jaimungal, owner of Ram Construction Concepts.
“I love my customers,” Camps said, “and for the grand re-opening, I’m going to invite every person that I can think of, the ones that criticized me, the ones that like me, all the politicians—I don’t care if you are blue, red, purple—all the inspectors. I’m gonna do what I wanted to do when I came to Ocala, bring people together.”