The All-American Food Issue: Featuring the Finest of Portland's Multicultural Restaurants and Food Carts
John Maribona, chef/co-owner of Pambiche Cocina and Repostería Cubana, worked in Portland kitchens for years before opening his restaurant in 2000, but he hasn’t worked a line in a very long time. Since opening, the restaurant has evolved considerably in its nearly 20 years in business: In 2002, Pambiche took over ownership of the entire building on Northeast Glisan; in 2010, they renovated their patio and put up a mural on the side of the restaurant; in 2012, they started serving liquor. These days, Maribona’s duties are more administrative and deal with big-picture plans. For our interview, Maribona calls me from Mérida, Yucatan, in Mexico, where he and his family currently live while renovating an old house they’re planning to turn into a boutique hotel.
“I kind of split my time between Portland and Mérida,” Maribona says. “I’m back and forth constantly. My wife comes for summer and spring break... it’s a little hectic, kinda crazy.”
Maribona says the benefit of living in Mérida is that it’s halfway between Havana, Cuba (where some of Maribona’s family lives), and Chiapas, Mexico (where much of his wife Hada Salinas’ family lives), and only an hour-long flight away.
Flanked by his other co-owners—Salinas and Roseanne Romaine—Maribona fuels Pambiche (and all his other projects) with a passion for traditionalist cooking, architecture, and travel.
Maribona recently caused a stir with Portlanders who lost their cool online and were “devastated” by the decision to have the building’s vibrant green-and-pink stucco façade updated with beige and off-white.
“The stucco has been crumbling for years,” Maribona says. “We had to do it. It should’ve been done last year but since we’re not [in Portland]. We kinda had to wait until this year, and so having two major construction projects happening and running a restaurant—it’s a lot of stuff.”
Maribona says that with gentrification running unchecked in Portland, and the revolving door of restaurant openings and closures, he totally gets why the paint job—paired with his move to Mérida—may have been alarming and symbolic to some.
“We’ve been talking about gentrification in Portland for 30 years,” Maribona says. “Look at a place on Division or Alberta or Mississippi... they’re all kind of that beige thing, and then we were one of the last bastions of funky-weird-old Portland, and now we’re beige too. And people are like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Maribona says he was actually inspired to recreate an old-Portland feel.
“I was inspired to do it because we found an old black-and-white photo from the ’20s,” he says. “It’s really beautiful. There’s guys with these top hats just kind of sitting out there with their suspenders and hanging out, drinking a soda pop.”
Maribona’s inclination toward reclaiming old things is a big part of his and the restaurant’s identity.
“We’re trying to make the old food and the classic old drinks. Everything that I have, or want to have, is old. I like the antique aesthetic,” Maribona says.
“I know it’s kind of unpopular these days. Everyone wants to tear every old thing down and build something new. But that’s just not me.”
Maribona’s love of everything old and traditional is apparent when you look at his other projects. Take their gorgeous Portland home for instance: Maribona and Salinas bought their Alberta Arts District house 18 years ago. With Salinas as his muse, Maribona spent years doing extravagant renovations to transform the Craftsman into their Spanish Colonial dream home. The extravagant house was made “to create the feeling of another time and place,” and uses lots of reclaimed wood, brick and fixtures, plus loads of brightly colored décor that’s inspired by his family’s travels to the Caribbean and Latin America. Maribona and Salinas recently put it on the market for a cool $1.2 million.
While Maribona and his family have temporarily relocated to Mérida and are in the process of selling their current home, he says they’re merely downsizing, and plan to move back to Portland full-time when their kids start high school. To put a finer point on it: Pambiche isn’t going anywhere. And as long as the food continues to be the-bomb-dot-com, neither are their customers.
For a small place, Pambiche’s menu of pre-revolution Cuban fare is quite expansive. And since most Cuban food is rice-based, much of their menu is gluten-free (though Maribona makes sure to clarify that they don’t have a gluten-free kitchen). Without trying, Pambiche’s also got a lot of vegan and vegetarian options like black beans and rice, fried plantains, corn/yuca fritters, empanadas, and exquisite salads. There’s also a Plato Comunista ($16), a vegan/vegetarian dish that includes yuca in a garlic mojo sauce, with a choice of beet or cabbage salad, beans, and rice.
I recommend starting with the Fritura y Frijol combo ($14), which comes with your choice of Cuban fritters (get corn!) as well as black beans and avocado salad. And even though Cuban food is known for using pork as its main meat source, pescatarians (and flexitarians) make out pretty good at Pambiche: a Pescado con Coco plate ($20) of red snapper, coconut pepper sauce, black beans, rice, and fried green plantains is exactly what you want on your birthday. A more costly plate of garlicky Gulf prawns ($26) comes with white rice, a garlic crostini, and avocado salad. That avocado salad, by the way, is $10 when you order it alone: an entire Hass avocado tossed with Cuban aliño dressing and red onion and topped with parsley. Now that’s my kind of salad. There’s also lots here for omnivores: from Cuban sandwiches, picadillo, and much more.
Drinks-wise, the traditional thing to do here is get a mojito or something else with rum. (They’ve also got rum flights, and Maribona says he’s been crafting a beer with Migration Brewing across the street.) There’s a substantial non-alcoholic drink program as well. On a recent visit, a non-dairy pineapple and banana shake ($6) hit the spot, with a thickness that survived the whole dinner. If you’ve got room for dessert, go for the tres leches cake ($8) or the guava cheesecake ($7).
“Most things that we have—arroz con pollo, the black beans, and the congri, the sandwiches and the empanadas—came from my godmother [who] had a Latin American deli,” Maribona says. “Her and this Argentinean woman opened up a place in the Yamhill Market, back in the ’80s. It was called Las Delicias, and they did Cuban sandwiches and empanadas, and a few other things. And I worked with her as a kid, just like 14-years-old or something like that. That’s kinda where I got started.”
A lot of the other Cuban basics, like the guava and cheese desserts, come from Maribona growing up with his mother and grandmother’s cooking.
Maribona says that while sometimes he has an urge to put something new on the menu, he also knows he’d have to rotate out a staple to make room for it. And some customers, who go out of their way to visit Pambiche, simply wouldn’t stand for it.
“We’re kinda stuck,” Maribona says. “I’m not complaining about it, it’s our identity. I love our identity. I love who we are. I love doing the classics. I’m a traditionalist. It’s a passion just to try to do things the way they’re supposed to be done.... I think what I crave to do is update it, do something different with the décor, update the feel. [It feels like] I’m holding back. But if you do, then everybody cringes.”
Maribona argues that the more subtle paint on the building allows the vibrant colors of Pambiche—as well as the mural on the side of the building—to pop more.
In any case, making a fuss over the color of the restaurant’s exterior is definitely a first-world Cuban-food problem. Tourists who’ve traveled to Cuba in recent years report back saying the food was bland or lacking due to fewer ingredients being available. When asked about how scarcity affects the cuisine in Cuba, Maribona had insight from his experiences and frequent travels to the area.
“When things were opened under Obama, Cuba was getting a landslide of tourists and.... there’s not enough beds, not enough toilet paper, not enough gas for the cars. You know, just not enough of everything.”
Maribona explains that while plenty of money was going into the infrastructure for tourism, barely any was going to the population.
“So it was like ‘Wow, Cuba’s really prospering.’ You can see these touristy areas where things were happening, all this new construction was going on. But if you go in the neighborhoods, people that didn’t have any access to any part of that industry were really having a hard time.
“So yeah, people will buy garlic, oregano, and cumin, but sometimes you’ve got to think about tomorrow, and Friday, and Saturday. You have to think about the next day... I’ve walked for blocks ’cause we were going to make mojitos... but lime, it’s not always available. Or they’re these big limes, where you try to squeeze them and nothing comes out because they’re all dried up and no juice. You know, I’ve lived this.
“In some of the places, it can be better,” Maribona continues. “It depends on the situation and the scenario. You know, paladares get all the fish. People complain about that. ‘We’re not surrounded by water, we don’t have access to fish because all the fishermen sell to the paladares,’ which are the privately-owned restaurants. You know, not everyone has money to eat at the paladares. They’re kind of expensive—especially by Cuban standards.”
Cuba’s ongoing limited access to food and other resources should put things in perspective for those of us who live in places like Portland, where our stores, markets, and restaurants all have ample access to the natural world’s riches.
Pambiche owners recently got notice that the Glisan Quick Wash located in their building was closing and had to decide whether they wanted to take over the space or rent it out.
“We decided that you know, we’re just a little hole in the wall Cuban joint on Northeast Glisan street, and we like that vibe: the little mom-and-pop joint and just doing what we do. We’re afraid to mess with it too much... For a long time, we were for sure, like ‘Oh we’re gonna go open up a bar, we’re gonna do all these things.’ But then I think Portland is so saturated with restaurants and bars, and we really like where we’re at. And you know, constantly getting new people in, all these new people that are moving here. It’s constantly new faces, and constantly old faces. So it’s just a really good happy place.”