Nestled in the heart of Berwyn’s up and coming depot district a small (yet mighty) restaurant is bringing a taste of Cuba to the western suburbs. A three-woman operation, Café Media Noche, located at 6836 Windsor Avenue in Berwyn, focuses on Cuban fare in three forms: catering, food truck and pop-up restaurant.
After three visits to Café Media Noche, I can say with absolute certainty the restaurant is more than capable of satiating a craving for crispy empanadas, flavorful braised pork and rice, and melty Cubano sandwiches–just don’t expect it to happen on a regular basis.
Taking inspiration from Jon Favreau’s movie, “Chef”, Vivi Noa and her family/partners, Evelyn and Chasity Noa, originally operated a catering business and food truck. The trio prepped and cooked out of a shared kitchen in Chicago, but a year ago a serendipitous connection in the local supermarket led them to a small, but fully built-out restaurant space in Berwyn.
They were surprised to learn it would be less expensive to operate out of their own brick and mortar space than the communal kitchens. As a bonus the property offered a much-needed parking space for their food truck. The women jumped at the opportunity to take over the eatery. Despite their continued focus on catering and food truck fare, the cozy and inviting space inspired the Noa trio to open the restaurant seven days a week.
“The restaurant was packed, but we also had large catering orders and the truck to think about;” says Evelyn, “food storage was becoming an issue and we needed to take a step back.”
The business was growing too fast and Vivi, Evelyn and Chasity opted to shut the restaurant to use the space exclusively as a prep kitchen for their food truck and catering gigs. Regular customers, however, objected to the closure and insisted the Noa’s reopen the restaurant.
“They would say ‘you can’t do this to us’ and ‘there are no Cuban places to eat,’” laughs Evelyn, “and they begged us to open for a few days each week.”
The idea of opening on an occasional basis took a moment to warm to, but business-savvy Evelyn saw value in the idea of opening sporadically when it didn’t conflict with large catering orders. In that moment Café Media Noche became a pop-up restaurant within its own brick and mortar restaurant.
Sounds complicated, right? Not really, the approach is simple.
Café Media Noche opens to the public several days per month and announces their schedule in four-month blocks–customers plan their visits in advance by visiting their website and following them on Facebook and Instagram to stay in the loop about the days the restaurant will be open.
The schedule may be inconsistent, but the food quality is unwavering.
“There is a lot of impostor Cuban food out there,” say Chasity earnestly, “but we don’t cut corners here; Vivi cooks with integrity.”
Vivi Noa, started cooking in Havana, Cuba when she was just eight years old. She perfected cooking steak and rice under her own mother’s watchful eye before emigrating to the United States in the 1980’s where she worked as a banquet server at a hotel. Today Vivi is the mother of eight grown children, four boys and four girls, with thirteen grandchildren and another on the way.
Raising a large family forced Vivi to become economical and resourceful; she would combine birthday celebrations into one large bash to save both time and money. Reaping the benefits of circumstantial overlap allow Vivi’s strongest skill set to shine—large volume cooking. During these shared birthday celebrations, the Noa household would overflow with friends and family and Vivi would turn out an endless buffet of traditional Cuban fare. Dishes like Pollo Encebollado- onion smothered grilled chicken seasoned with chilies, orange juice and garlic-kept people coming back for more. Vivi’s food became a major draw at Noa family parties.
“People would be like ‘this food is delicious’,” says Evelyn, “and they all started bringing containers to carry out food from our parties.”
Cooking at home parties and gifting food to family and friends eventually morphed into a catering business. As the business began to grow, Evelyn and Chastity decided to invest their business acumen and energy into Café Media Noche. Evelyn who has a business degree, manages the all aspects of the business and Chasity oversees all marketing and social media.
Today, customers call the quietly confident cook “Mami” and she seems to dish out hugs as frequently as rice. And that rice, by the way, makes use of long grain rice, dried black beans and pressure cooking to bring the traditional dark hue to Café Media Noche’s Cuban rice.
Vivi, who says her favorite ingredients are “onions, garlic and love,” finds inspiration in the array of ingredients available at American markets, but her commitment to using natural ingredients and authentic preparation techniques remains intact.
While sitting at the counter at Café Media Noche, I witnessed Evelyn pull back a layer of banana leaves revealing a pot of Vivi’s arzzo con gandules–fluffy rice cooked with sofrito and spiked with pigeon peas and bits of pork. I enjoyed the Puerto Rican rice alongside sweet plantains and braised pork; the dish called, arrzo con gandules, lechon and maduros, is available as menu special on a rotating basis.
“People come in thinking they only want one thing from the menu,” says Evelyn, “but once they try something, they want to try everything on the menu.”
And I can personally attest to the truth of that statement.
I savored shatteringly crisp empandas stuffed with beef, pork, chicken, ham and cheese and vegetables. I explored Pillowy yuca and papa rellenas filled with beef and fried to golden brown. I sampled a Cubano, so cheesy that pulling it apart created long ribbons of melted goodness. I rounded out one of my meals with a Cuban cortadito—an espresso shot made from Café Bustelo and tempered with steamed milk.
“We’re serving tradition from the heart of our kitchen” says Chasity of Café Media Noche’s approach to food.
The menu offerings at Café Media Noche are straight forward, honest and flavorful. What appear to be simple dishes are deceptively complex and patrons are known to stop in more than once a day when the restaurant is open. Everyone entering the establishment is treated like family and appreciates the congenial atmosphere and endearing personalities behind the business.
“We are still growing;” says Evelyn, “We didn’t expect to be here so fast, but these are blessings and opportunities we don’t take for granted.”
Look, to put this in perspective, I set calendar reminders in my phone to keep track of the days Café Media Noche is scheduled to be open. You should, too.