La Cocina de Abuela (“Grandma’s Kitchen”) or quite simply known as Abuela’s, is located at 125 NW 23rd Avenue, just east of Ward’s Supermarket, in a location that has housed more restaurants in the last 10 years than I can remember. Given that other tenants of the same shopping plaza include a thrift store, bail bonds company, and aquarium store, it’s not exactly the place where you’d expect a good restaurant to pop up. However, I truly believe there are no such thing as bad locations, just bad food. Does La Cocina de Abuela have the staying power that previous tenants have not had? Yes, I believe so. Allow me to expand upon this.
Let’s begin by saying this is a restaurant brought to you by the same gal that brought us Flaco’s. Whereas Flaco’s appeals more to the slightly to heavily inebriated late night party crowd, Abuela’s hits their stride as the kind of blue collar, cafeteria-style, Latin cuisine you’d find in many a strip mall in the heart of Miami. This makes their location all the more fitting. The menu is mostly Colombian and Cuban, consisting of well-executed versions of Ropa Vieja, Mojo Pork, a classic Cuban sandwich, Media Noche, and a small variety of Arepas and Cachapas (basically corn pancakes that are white or yellow corn, Cachapas being sweeter and fluffier). Sides include platanos maduros (sweet plantains), yucca fries, chicharron (fried pork fat), chorizo sausage, and rice with a variety of toppings that include red beans, lentils, and black beans. It’s simple fast food that is both filling and affordable.
There’s also a couple rotating specials on the menu like Mondongo (a tripe and veggies soup), and Chuletas de Cerdo (pork chops) when I visited. The restaurant is open from 11 AM to 7:30 PM from Tuesday to Saturday, and while the food is all available a la carte, it’s best to visit before 2 PM to take advantage of their lunch plates. $8.99 gets you a heaping pile of delicious slow cooked meat with rice & beans, plantains or yucca, and a drink. It’s only $2.00 more if you want to pile on some more portions. The Ropa Vieja ($9.99 for a plate with two sides) is rich without being overly salty or acidic, and I really enjoy it with a nice griddled white-corn Arepa. The Mojo Pork ($9.99 for a plate with two sides) is tender, slow cooked, juicy, and the type of garlic goodness that you should expect. If you choose to go with the Yuca Fries as your side, be sure to get some of their garlic aioli to dip them in! I would also recommend a Cachapa with sweet ham and Swiss cheese ($4.50).
The building itself and even the interior of the restaurant contains no signage with the restaurant name. In fact, the only evidence of the name is on a colorful, hand-painted sign on the side of 23rd Avenue. The interior consists of light wood paneling, butcher’s block shelving, a children’s play area, and the kind of tables and chairs you’d find at a Panera Bread. It’s a simple and sparsely decorated space. But true to the spirit of the restaurant, it’s all about good food at good prices with generous portions. As such, you’ll find that it’s a popular spot among many blue collar workers in the area to get a good fast meal. Just be prepared when you walk in, or be sure to pay attention to the white board at the entrance, because none of the dishes are labeled once you get to the cafeteria line.
Between Abuela’s and the absolutely marvelous Arepas Milko (a review will be coming soon), we’re seeing Gainesville step up its Latin cuisine. These are the kind of places that will be sure to please the many South Florida transplants that call Gainesville home (including me). If you work downtown, near campus, or on the North side of town, you just gained a new lunch spot worthy of your money. I just have one real complaint: Where are the tostones?