Many Cubans, however, eventually migrate to different regions of the country including Indiana, with nearly 200 in the Fort Wayne area alone. Yalili Mesa, husband Gustavo Rodriguez and their son Nestor first settled in the Miami area in 2000; through a friend’s invitation, they came to Fort Wayne in 2001.
Like many before them, the Mesa-Rodriguez family had ventured to the United States looking for opportunity and refuge. Yalili worked many service industry positions in Florida and Fort Wayne but wanted to contribute something unique to the community. In 2008, a friend suggested she start a business, so Yalili visited a vacant storefront at 1123 East State Blvd. and became enamored with it. It wasn’t until she signed the lease that she envisioned a sandwich shop, which would become Caliente (Spanish for “hot”). The economy was in rapid decline, Yalili’s English proficiency was minimal and she knew little about starting a business — so her idea naturally concerned friends and family.
“They thought I was crazy!” she said, but she was determined to realize her dream.
Business planning moved quickly as the Mesa-Rodriguez home became a test kitchen in the weeks before the restaurant’s opening. After Caliente opened, Yalili was pleasantly overwhelmed by the customer response, and eventually Gustavo left his full-time position to join her.
The menu features sandwiches, appetizers and dinners, with everything prepared from scratch. Yalili prepares at least 60 sandwiches daily, and the Cuban sandwich is by far the most popular. When a new customer asks what to order, she typically suggests the Cuban. The Cuban has roasted pork, ham, sauce, cheese and jalapenos and is toasted to a perfect crispy crunch.
“I’m feeling good when I’m making my sandwich and I hear when it crunches in the mouth of the people … I’m waiting for their first bite, and I ask, ‘It’s good?’” When they answer with a nod and a smile, she knows they’re pleased.
Regulars frequent Caliente weekly, some daily. Travelers make it a destination when in Fort Wayne. The papa rellenas were voted the best appetizer by the Journal Gazette in 2011, and Caliente was featured in the book, “Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest in 2012.”
Yalili recognizes Caliente’s distinctive appeal as the only Cuban restaurant in northeast Indiana. She’s never regretted moving to Fort Wayne; in fact, she deeply appreciates having raised her family here. Through food, Yalili continues to offer customers a sampling of Cuban culture and a greater vision for business possibilities in spite of obstacles. Customers quickly recognize that eating a sandwich is only part of the experience at Caliente, as the food symbolizes a journey entailing hardship, joy and passion that is always served warm and with a smile.