Years ago, when Juliet Paneca was just a child, she eagerly awaited the first bite of beef before dinner from her grandmother, Maria “Conchita” Dominguez. It was a tradition that Juliet holds dear to her heart. And now the beef dishes like Ropa Vieja and Bistec de Palomilla are some of the most popular items on the menu at Juliet’s restaurant, Copacabana Cuban Café in Altamonte Springs.
“We feel pride in our cuisine, and we are fortunate to have great chefs in our families,” Juliet says.
In fact, all the dishes at Copacabana are made from scratch and were inspired by Juliet’s grandmother.
Juliet moved to Central Florida from Cuba with her parents 19 years ago. At the time, she didn’t expect to get involved in the restaurant business. Her father, Alberto Paneca, learned the ropes of the restaurant industry when he worked in service and management of eateries after moving to the United States.
“Before that, my father was an architect in Cuba,” says Juliet.
The family noticed that there weren’t any Cuban restaurants in the area. So, about nine years ago, Alberto, Juliet, Juliet’s husband Chef Beni Escalera, and business partner Antonio Reyes opened the first Copacabana Cuban Café in Mount Dora. It was a hit almost instantly.
“This is our passion,” Juliet says. “We enjoy what we do.”
As word spread, hungry diners would travel to the popular Cuban eatery in Mount Dora, and Juliet got to know regulars from Kissimmee, Orlando, and Altamonte. It was a long drive for a plate of Masitas de Puerco, or fried pork, but worth it for a taste of home. In September 2017, the family opened a second Copacabana Cuban Café location in Altamonte Springs.
“There are many, many restaurants people can choose, but when they choose Copacabana, that means something,” Juliet says. “From the moment that a person walks in, we treat them like family.”
Many of the authentic Cuban dishes can transport expatriates back to their homeland. One man stopped Juliet at the restaurant to tell her how much he enjoyed the Ropa Vieja. It reminded him of his childhood when his abuela (grandmother) would call his brother and him to feed them the first bite before dinner.
“He started crying and said, ‘The Ropa Vieja you make here is exactly like my grandma’s; there must be some connection.’ And I was crying with him,” says Juliet. “The most important thing is to feel good about what you do. That’s the key. Feel the passion.”