If you find yourself in Hartsdale, specifically at the new Matanzas Cuban Cafe, and you meet its owner, Annarella Hernandez-Dias, you’ll feel her passion for her family and culture immediately.
Although she just opened Matanzas (named after the city located on Cuba’s north shore) this summer, the idea to serve Cuban comfort food was one that had been cooking for a while.
“It’s a passion project that I originally wanted to start with my father, but he passed in 2017 from ALS,” she says. “I’m fulfilling our dream, and a legacy for my two daughters, but it’s also for the culture.”
Hernandez-Dias, who spent more than 20 years in the fashion industry and hails from Queens, mentioned having only two Cuban restaurants around when she grew up, and one of them closed a long time ago. Now that she lives roughly 10 minutes from her café, she felt Westchester was missing that home-cooked Cuban food presence.
“There’s nowhere that I can go to have traditional Cuban food,” she says. “There are two other places. One is a small store with a few things, the other is a little more Americanized. They’re both great and I hope we all thrive.”
What she means by “missing” are the tasty comforts like pastelitos, tostones with garlic sauce, savory empanadas, a handful of Cuban coffees, sandwiches, and papa rellenas, mashed potato balls stuffed with picadillo (a traditional savory dish consisting of sofrito, ground beef, a tomato sauce base, and lots of spices), then fried to a golden brown.
But there’s more in terms of limited specials. Grilled chicken and mojo roasted pork (better known as, pernil) are daily specials, and Monday through Saturday you’ll find others like a slow-cooked, then shredded ropa vieja. On Thursdays, it’s all about the stewed oxtail. Each of “Mima’s Daily Specials” is served classically with black beans and white rice.
Everything at Matanzas is made fresh daily, and these are Hernandez-Dias’ family recipes — hence, the reason the specials (and the ham and chicken croquetas) are all preceded by her grandmother’s name, Mima.
Carrying out her family’s recipes, however, is chef Marlina Gomez. “She’s awesome,” Hernandez-Dias says. “She was one of our first hires. I’m not a cook. I’m a home cook. But she executes my family’s recipes perfectly. Most of these are my grandmother’s recipes and luckily my sister had them all recorded.”
In addition to traditional Cuban pastries, snacks, and plates, Matanzas has become known for sandwiches. Of course that means a legit Cubano, constructed with a few slices of ham, melt-in-your-mouth pernil, Swiss cheese, thinly sliced pickles, and a slather of yellow mustard that’s made the right way, as in, NOT on Italian bread or French baguette, but Cuban bread from a bakery in the Bronx that gets wrapped in aluminum foil and properly pressed.
And while the Cubano is popular, Hernandez-Dias shares the pan con bistec (marinated flank steak with lettuce, onion, tomato, and potato sticks) is another stacked sandwich attracting attention.
What Hernandez-Dias and the team at Matanzas hope to achieve are consistency and longevity.
“I invested in this myself and said to myself that it’s now or never, even with no prior experience,” she says. “It’s scary, but what isn’t? This used to be a Chinese takeout for 20, 25 years. They were also family-run, and I hope to be here that long. This is the type of Cuban place I’d want to see if I went somewhere. I want you to have the Cuban, come back, and it’s the same as you remember it.”
Matanzas Cuban Cafe
17 E Hartsdale Ave, Hartsdale; 516.621.5130