Sometimes when customers enter Cafe Jordano, a longstanding Italian restaurant in Lakewood, they inquire about the lack of romantic music and quiet ambiance.
Owner Elisa Heitman, who was born and raised in Naples, Italy, takes a moment to explain: that is simply the American impression of her homeland.
“In Italy, the restaurants do not have dim lights and they have lots of people that talk,” Heitman said, “And they’re definitely not quiet.”
That’s just one of the parts of her country that Heitman seeks to share with customers through her restaurant, which has been in the community since 1991.
Heitman and dozens of other restaurateurs across the Denver Metro Area bring the food and culture of their homelands to local communities. Often, they’re correcting stereotypes and connecting Coloradans to novel ideas about far away places.
For Farah-Jane Jean Pierre, owner of Fritay Haitian Cuisine food truck, she’s teaching many that not all Haitian food is spicy and that her home country is more than what is seen on the news. For Grant and Yoona Conrad, owners of Hangry Ohana, they’re spreading Aloha and introducing locals to the sometimes-unexpected flavors of Hawaiian barbecue.
More to Haiti
When Jean Pierre moved to Denver three years ago, the only Haitian restaurant she knew of was closing down, she said. Previously, she had been in New York, where the food of her home country was abundant and easy to find.
With degrees in culinary arts and hospitality and a group of friends encouraging her to start her own restaurant, Jean Pierre soon decided to take a course in opening a food truck. Now, the recently-opened Fritay Haitian Cuisine food truck sits at 8615 East Colfax Avenue in Denver.
During the time she was preparing to open her food truck, Jean Pierre worked with her mother and aunt, both of whom still live in Haiti, to develop her recipes, she said.
“And then I put my own touch on them,” she said.
The truck serves common Haitian street food like plantains, rice and black beans, poul fri (fried chicken) and griyo (fried pork). Much of the food is prepared in a traditional haitian marinade called epis, which is a blend of herbs, garlic, peppers, vinegar and oil.
With many customers having never tried Haitian food, Jean Pierre often provides samples and explains a bit about her cooking process.
“There’s a misconception that Caribbean people eat a lot of spicy food,” Jean Pierre said. “But that doesn’t mean all our food is spicy.”
Jean Pierre, who moved to the United States a month after the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti, hopes to address other misconceptions about her country as well.
“With everything happening in Haiti right now, there’s bad news all the time,” she said, “But to me, there’s more to Haiti, more than the news.”
She said she hopes those curious about the country will try her food to learn a bit about it.
“You get a taste of Haiti,” she said. “Even though you’ve never been to Haiti.”
Spread the Aloha
Grant and Yoona Conrad met in college on the Hawaiian island of Oahu where they both participated in a local ROTC program. Grant started working in the restaurant industry while there and fell in love with the island’s food, he said.
The couple eventually moved to Colorado, where Grant was raised. Grant was working as a district manager for Wendy’s at the time but in 2016, he decided to open Hangry Ohana, a Hawaiian barbeque food truck. Two years later, they opened their first storefront location in Parker and later opened restaurants in Fountain and Monument.
Now, Yoona, who grew up in Hawaii, gets to enjoy the food she grew up with, which isn’t very common in the Denver metro area.
“I get homesick like most people,” she said. “Grant’s cooking skills and business skills help me not miss home as much.”
The couple used a mix of taste memory, Yoona’s family recipes, and their own flavors to develop the dishes now served in the fast-casual restaurant. Some of the main items include chicken katsu, kalua pork, macaroni salad and bacon fried rice.
It’s not just the food from Hawaii that the couple is providing, it’s also the culture. One thing Yoona likes to do is “spread the Aloha” with their customers, she said.
“Aloha is like a term for love and caring and saying hi,” she said. “It’s a good, warm comfort type of word and we want to instill that in our restaurant culture so our customers feel at home and get a little bit of the island experience.”
When Heitman moved to Colorado in 1979, she quickly fell in with the restaurant industry. She met her then-husband and about a decade later, the couple opened Cafe Jordano – named for their son.
“Everybody said ‘you’re crazy, you’re never going to make it,” she said in an interview with Colorado Community Media.
Now, it’s 31 years later and Heitman says it was reasonable prices and word of mouth exchanges that maintained and grew the restaurant.
Many of the restaurant’s dishes are a blend of traditional recipes combined with their own unique twist, Heitman said.
While visitors sometimes only think of spaghetti or lasagna when they first glance at the menu, Heitman’s offerings include many other dishes like Pollo Elegante, a chicken marsala dish with mushrooms and a splash of cognac, and Cod Alla Pomodoro Fresco, made up of cod, olive oil, tomatoes garlic and basil over linguini.
Heitman’s personal favorite is the linguini with fresh clams.
“It’s what I grew up on,” Heitman said.
The restaurant makes all of its sauces and meatballs in house and buys some ingredients, including their bread, straight from Italy.