It's lunchtime inside the tiny restaurant on Ulmerton Road. While one customer waits for the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and another waits for the pernil (slow-roasted pork), Edward Lopez was ready for his pastelitos (meat pies).
"I'm from Puerto Rico, and the first time I came in here, and I ate the food, it made me so happy,'' said Lopez, who has lived in Florida seven years. "I keep coming back because I feel like I'm home.''
That's precisely what the owners of Tia's Authentic Latin Food want to hear. Gabriel Gonzalez and his mother, Susan, opened the business seven months ago. "We stick to the principle — we cook like we are home,'' Gonzalez said.
They work side by side in the kitchen every Tuesday through Saturday. The menu is based on Gonzalez family recipes — Puerto Rican, Cuban and Caribbean dishes Susan Gonzalez learned as a little girl in her grandmother's kitchen in Aguada, Puerto Rico.
"It's all stuff I grew up eating,'' said Gabriel, 36. "Puerto Rico, Cuba and Santo Domingo — they're so close that the food in these places is very similar."
In her youth, Susan moved from Puerto Rico to New Jersey, and in 1988, she moved to Florida with her husband, David (who passed away in 2004), and four children, David Jr., Julissa, Jennifer and Gabriel, who was 12 at the time.
"First we lived in Spring Hill. It was culture shock,'' Gabriel said. "There weren't too many of us urban Puerto Rican kids around there.''
As soon as he graduated from Central High School in Spring Hill, Gabriel, who is also a hip-hop artist, moved to Tampa and found work in several of Ybor City's nightclubs.
"Not until Tampa did I feel at home again, but when I moved to Pinellas, for the beach, last year, again it was a shock. There was no good Latin food on this side of the bridge, just fraud, fraud, fraud,'' he said. "So I decided to start a restaurant myself.''
But first he enlisted the help of an expert. On July 27, 2012, Susan's birthday, Gabriel surprised her with the restaurant idea.
"I remember my son said, 'Come on, Mom, you always wanted to open a restaurant. Let's do it now,' " said Susan, 61. "And he was right. I'm not getting any younger.''
The pair relied on their savings accounts for the initial $15,000 investment. Gabriel also sold several instruments from his musical collection.
"I unloaded beloved guitars like my Les Paul and a Fender, and a lot of vintage recordings I don't want to have to name because I'll feel like shooting myself,'' Gabriel said. "But we've been heading down a path, and it's all working out.''
On Day 1, with a grocery list from Susan in hand, Gabriel purchased $800 worth of groceries. "We took that money out of pocket, and we haven't had to go back in our pockets since,'' he said.
On Day 30, they broke even for the first time. "Actually, we broke even plus $10,'' he said.
On Day 90, they ". . . had enough profit to pay myself and Mom something,'' he recalled.
When Gabriel and Susan are at work, their cooking styles are identical. They both furrow their brows when discussing cooking time for the meat. "We like to roast the pork very long to make it juicy,'' Susan said.
They both stop what they are doing whenever the front door opens. "Hello, how ya been?" they say in unison.
And, just as Susan's grandmother showed her years ago, neither she nor Gabriel uses measuring cups when they create their seasoning, their sofrito. "We use our eyes to measure,'' Susan said.
However, because he hopes to open more locations of Tia's in the future, Gabriel is trying to identify specific measurements to write down recipes for staff to follow. "We have to make sure our employees can cook our food, so we need to figure out the official measurements,'' he said.
At this, Susan shakes her head. "Measuring with cups makes me nervous.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.