Roberto W. Meireles left Cuba when he was 14 years old. After years working as an engineer in Florida, he eventually found himself in charge of Omaha’s only Cuban restaurant, Gusto Cuban Café.
Meireles’ journey to eventually owning and running a restaurant with his wife, Ana Barajas De Meireles, is a story of a man from the Caribbean falling in love with the city of Omaha.
Meireles first learned of Omaha through the coupons he found in Reader’s Digest while he was a child living in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba. Before the magazine ceased to be available to Cuban residents, Meireles would pore through the magazine and fill out all the coupons in hopes of having something sent back to him.
“That was the only thing I knew about Omaha,” Meireles says. “That it had Mutual of Omaha.”
His 1966 escape from Cuba separated Meireles from his parents. He lived with an uncle in Miami while working and attending school.
Meireles made his true connections with Omaha in adulthood, after meeting a Nebraskan couple on a cruise. Luis and Connie Canal first approached Meireles when they heard him speaking Spanish, and throughout the course of the cruise, they became very close—to the point that they continued to visit Meireles and his ex-wife in Florida. On each visit, Luis and Connie would invite them to come see what Omaha had to offer.
“In 2004, we came in December. I had never seen snow before, and I wanted to see snow,” Meireles says.
He was so impressed with the city that he purchased a home so he could visit during the winter. After his divorce, Meireles moved all his belongings to Omaha late in 2006 to take up permanent residence in his winter vacation house. Retiring from his engineering job after 25 years in the industry, Meireles set out to open a Cuban restaurant.
“I wanted to live in Omaha because I didn’t want to stay in Miami anymore.” Meireles says. “When I found this, I found paradise.”
He praises the Midwest’s climate and the dire need of Cuban cuisine in Omaha. He emphasizes the stark difference between Cuban food and other Latin American foods—Cuban food does not feature tortillas, and the primary meat is pork as opposed to chicken or beef.
For several months Meireles’ routine consisted of waking up early in the morning to work on the restaurant and working at his other job late into the evening. After more than half a year of work, Gusto Cuban Café opened its doors Oct. 18, 2007.
What truly sets Gusto Cuban Café aside from the typical restaurant is the effort that Meireles and Barajas De Meireles have poured into it. Nearly everything in the restaurant has been crafted or repaired by the Meireleses. They even built all the furniture bearing the restaurant’s logo.
“We are jacks of all trades. Whatever needs to be done, wherever I need to be is where I’m at.” Barajas De Meireles says. “I go anywhere from waiting tables, being the cook, bartending, or whatever is necessary.”
Another unique aspect Meireles brings to the restaurant scene is his refusal to use recipes. Instead, he measures ingredients by eye, preparing food the way his family did.
Barajas De Meireles, who met Meireles through Gusto Cuban Café, works as a nurse during the day and, after her shifts, rushes to Gusto Cuban to help with the evening operations.
“My wife is basically the same way as me. She likes this craziness, that is why we have so much in common.” Meireles says.
The couple makes it clear that running the restaurant is an all-hands-on-deck operation, and they lend their success to their loyal customer base and desire to solve issues themselves.
“Sometimes I sit here inside of the restaurant and look at everything and think, ‘I can’t believe I did all this.’” Meireles says.
Visit gustocubancafe.com for more information.
This article published in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.