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El Cubano Covers the Gulf

April 15, 1993|LINDA BURUM

At Food Bag, fondly called "El Cubano" by many of the market's longtime regulars, there's always a crush of people gathered in the tiny bakery area, where a jovial woman dispenses grilled Cuban sandwiches, tres leches and refugiados (incredibly rich Cuban pastries) and the creamy tropical fruit-and-milk shakes called batidos.

"We'll soon be expanding this to a cafe," says Roberto Rodriguez Jr., who owns Food Bag with his father.

The remodeling that Food Bag began more than a year ago is nearly complete. The formerly unassuming neighborhood Cuban grocery has become a larger, up-to-date supermarket. The freshly painted peach-color exterior is accented with heliotrope neon, a stylish domed awning the shade of ripe papaya and festive orange shopping carts.

The shelves are still filled with everything for the Cuban cook, but a broader selection of Latin items has gradually been added. These days, Food Bag's customers include former residents of the Caribbean area, Central America and parts of Mexico where the cuisines share the same basic ingredients. More than half of the store's clientele is from Central America.

When they arrived in the United States after escaping Cuba during the late '50s, Rodriguez and his father, a wholesale grocery salesman, worked as busboys at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City until they could put together the funds to open a small market in 1969. The elder Rodriguez ran the store during the time his son served in Vietnam, and in 1976 they bought Food Bag together.

Rodriguez says his father has always had an extraordinary business sense. As a young boy, to supplement the 25 cents a day he earned cutting sugar cane, the elder Rodriguez would package roasted peanuts in snack-sized bags to sell on the streets at night. He found the peanut business more profitable than cutting cane. And he also found his calling as a grocery salesman, one who would eventually afford his family a middle-class standard of living. The philosophy that Rodriguez Sr. has long held: "Always offer customers the three Bs-- bueno (good), bonito (attractive) and barato (inexpensive)."

Knowing what your clientele wants is also, clearly, part of the formula. As I walked the aisles with Rodriguez Jr., a friendly but quietly formal man, he reminisces about his life in pre-revolutionary Cuba. He points out things on the shelves he remembers from those times--such as the Coco Rico coconut milk-flavored soda or the Cuban-style crackers kids crumble into cafe con leche for breakfast.

Standing in front of the cooking chocolates, Rodriguez Jr. remembers how his mother used to scrape shavings from a bar of Menier chocolate into warm milk to make hot chocolate. Later, in the wine section, he talks about New Year's Eve in Cuba, when everyone would eat 12 grapes at midnight before consuming a glass of sparkling cider--the Champagne of middle-class Cubans.

There is a wealth of Cuban convenience products-- empanada wrappers, instant marinades and seasoning mixes. Cuban food companies package everything from black bean soup to instant bunuelo mix. Several of these companies were well known in Cuba and have successfully relocated to Florida. And some products come from Cuban-run firms in Los Angeles, such as Gavina coffee and Cacique cheese.

Rodriguez Jr. stops to chat with customers--he remembers that a woman's daughter will soon marry and that one man recently had bypass surgery. Meanwhile, always working, he scans the shelves, getting rid of any signs of disorder, removing a candied apple abandoned among the soup cans and a bag of radishes tossed into the otherwise picture-perfect mango display.

The market has changed over the years, reflecting the changes in Los Angeles' Cuban community. "People who have lived here a long time, myself included, have changed their eating habits," he says. "They eat fewer rich meat dishes and fewer sweets. But when they get those cravings for wonderful Cuban flavors, they'll say, 'Let's go down to El Cubano.' "

SHOPPING LIST

COMFORT FOODS

* Gofio: Just as some of us used to eat dry instant chocolate milk powder straight from the package, kids in Cuba ate two-cents' worth of sweetened gofio from a little brown bag. This powder of pulverized toasted wheat is usually mixed with milk or broth.

"We'd buy some after school, cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag and sprinkle the gofio into our mouths as we walked along," says Rodriguez Jr. Imported from the Canary Islands, where it originated as a staple food, gofio has a rich, nutty flavor. Whether they eat it dry or mixed into liquid, most people sweeten gofio slightly with sugar.

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