Cuban food, influenced by Spanish, French and African flavors, is defined by its exotic flavors and hearty dishes. Cumin, bay leaf and sofrito make for classic meals like Arroz con Pollo, Picadillo, Papa Rellena and the famous Cuban sandwich.
Almost 3,000 miles away from Cuba, Glen Vilar, 35, and Troy Galven, 30, have refreshed traditional Cuban dishes to fit a vegan lifestyle while staying true to their culinary roots at their catering service, LOBO Cuban Food in Long Beach.
Inspired by his father’s passion for cooking, Vilar and his husband, Galven, decided to go to culinary school to pursue a career in the food industry.
“My dad was the main cook at the house and he’s always wanted to have a restaurant and never got a chance to do it,” Vilar said.
Upon graduation from the Cerritos College Culinary Arts program, the pair ventured into the restaurant business, beginning with LOBO Cuban Bowls late last year. However, they decided to rebrand the business, and renamed it LOBO Cuban Food in March of 2019, and expanded on their dishes.
Beyond the spices used to flavor, most dishes have a base of rice and beans, which are staples in any plant-based diet. Vilar said that the company’s focus is to make dishes with what’s available, using classic recipes and customizing them to meet the dietary standards of a vegan lifestyle.
Other dishes, like the Cuban sandwich, require a little more imagination. Jackfruit, native to Southeast Asia, is a common ingredient used in vegan food. Its texture mimics that of meat, and its flavorless nature allows for a wide range of customization, from teriyaki “chicken” to Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef dish.
“We like to keep it as clean as possible,” Vilar said about the decision to use the fruit rather than other meat alternatives.
Although the flavors and traditions have found their way to Long Beach, veganism has yet to find its way to Cuba.
“Havana is a food desert for fresh produce,” Vilar said.
He and his husband visited the country for the first time last year to see family and experience the culture.
Vilar said the most shocking part of his trip was the food scarcity he witnessed across the island. Fresh produce was close to non-existent, and most fruits and vegetables come from cans. The expansive fields in Cuba are harvested for other countries, leaving little for the local people.
“Any tourism to Cuba goes straight to the government,” Vilar said. “No progress…not for the people.”
While in Cuba, he and his husband became desperate to find more substantial forms of food, outside of the classic rice and beans. Due to the economic strife affecting the people, fresh produce and meats are considered to be a delicacy and are only available to those of privilege.
That’s why accessibility to vegan Cuban food is so important to LOBO.
Vilar hopes that he and his husband’s efforts will help to open dialogue conversation about Cuba. He said his biggest takeaway from the trip was realizing that even if you don’t have everything, it’s important to celebrate the gifts you are given.
“There’s more to the food and there’s more to the story,” Vilar said.
As the company grows, the couple is looking to expand its reach. They’ve begun collaborating with Good Vibes Society, an environmentally sustainable cold brew coffee company, to produce vegan café con leche.
A staple in Cuban culture, café con leche is much more than a beverage. Vilar said that he’s enjoyed the beverage since he was a child.
“Coffee was like water,” Vilar said.
Half coffee and half milk, the traditional Spanish beverage presented a challenge when it came to veganization.
“It took about six or seven batches before we nailed it,” Vilar said.
A worker at the Good Vibes Society, who goes by the name “Goon,” collaborated with LOBO to create a cafe con leche of their very own.
With a base of sustainable cold brew, the mixture includes oat milk made by Goon, a sprinkle of cinnamon and other ingredients to create a plant-based version of the Cuban staple.
“It’s the basis of Cuban culture,” Vilar said. “It’s about an experience.”
LOBO Cuban Food also serves at festivals throughout Los Angeles and Orange County and engage with the community through social media.
Galven said their top seller was once the mojo cauliflower, marinated in Cuban spices and served with black beans and cucumber salad, but has since been surpassed by the Cali-Cuban burrito, which is filled with rice, beans and Yuca french fries.
The Long Beach based catering company looks to expand its means of distribution in the near future. Although attending pop-up events has been the foundation of their business, Vilar and Galven look forward to having a more regular means of business by serving in a food truck, and eventually a brick and mortar location.
As LOBO Cuban Food continues to grow, the owners maintain their message.
“Always give 100% and be thankful for what you have,” Vilar said.