There’s a lot going on at Birmingham’s Miami Fusion Café, and the food is only part of it.
The restaurant does a brisk lunch business with the nearby city center office crowds; it draws diners downtown for dinner on Fridays and caters special events. El Conquistador, the Miami Fusion food truck, takes flavorful dishes, salsa music and Caribbean culture on the road throughout the greater Birmingham area and beyond. (The schedule is posted on Miami Fusion’s Facebook and Instagram accounts.)
The café owners are expanding to a space next door with plans for a tiki bar in time for the World Games. There’s already an event space upstairs, and people come here for private parties and Latin dance lessons. And the restaurant’s popular Jesus Cake is now in local grocery stores.
But Luis and Samantha Delgado also quietly serve another community — employing people in recovery, helping them gain life skills and supporting local organizations that combat addiction. It’s part of what Samantha says is a three-in-one approach to recovery — building self-esteem, offering structure and training (occupational skills, money management) and providing guidance and hope for the future.
Most people know Miami Fusion Café for the lunch dishes — the deliciously authentic Cuban sandwich; the fried ripe plantains (maduros) that are perfectly caramelized; tostones (unripe plantains sliced thin and twice fried) that are delightfully crisp; earthy, rich black beans; the popular mofongo made with a garlicky mash of green plantains topped with your choice of chicken, pork (our favorite), steak or veggies; subtly spiced jerk chicken with a fresh mango salsa; a kids’ menu with grilled cheese and empanadas.
The husband-and-wife team, with Luis as the executive chef and Samantha as the operations manager, started Miami Fusion Café in 2010. They opened their business inside a gas station in Alabaster with “six little tables, a panini press and a little camping stove we got from Costco,” Luis says.
They serve comfort food, even if the dishes and flavors are a tad unfamiliar.
Luis jokes that it’s “South-a-Rican,” but it’s really much more than that. “What people don’t understand is that the Caribbean islands were the first stop,” he says. “It was the first migration point where all these different cultures stopped. The cultures melted in the Caribbean islands.”
The culinary result is Cajun food and Creole dishes, he says, as well as the soul food of African Americans. What he makes each day at Miami Fusion Café is just a different type of soul food, he says. “It’s Southern comfort food – just more south.”
Luis was born in Puerto Rico, but he moved to the United States when he was 8 and grew up in Little Havana in Miami, enjoying foods from throughout the Caribbean. “I grew up with a grandmother who cooked Caribbean flavors, Puerto Rican flavors. … I learned the basics from her.”
Those basics include dishes from Puerto Rico, of course, as well as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Cuba and more, and all these places are represented, at some time or another, at Miami Fusion.
Luis and his grandmother watched Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on the television, and she understood, early on, that the “nosey little boy in her kitchen” loved food. About 13 years ago, she gave Luis a recipe book. “It’s a little, thin book that was given to her by her grandmother in 1979, if I’m correct,” he says. She gave him that book because, of her 27 grandkids, he’s the one who has made food his art.
“She acknowledged that this is my passion,” he says.
For Friday dinners, Luis delves deeper into his collection of his grandmother’s recipes, and there’s a different kind of atmosphere at Miami Fusion Café. The lights are dimmed, people dance to salsa music and the dishes are more elaborate – ropa vieja, paella, filet mignon or oxtails – depending on what Chef Luis wants to make.
Whether you visit for lunch or Friday dinner, don’t forget your Jesus Cake. There are signs throughout the restaurant telling you this. So, seriously, don’t forget it. It’s important.
The Jesus Cake, a tres leches (three-milk) cake, is a traditional sweet made with sponge cake soaked in a syrup of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream and then topped with whipped cream.
At Miami Fusion Café, it’s a ministry-driven dessert.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each cake provides funding for local recovery programs. Luis and Samantha, both recovering addicts, have long wanted to start a multicultural rehabilitation program to “provide an opportunity for recovery to anyone, no matter the language or cultural background.” Samantha says, “We’ve been given the opportunity by someone else to improve our life. So we want to give back to anyone who needs a second chance, if they want a second chance.”
Right now, they partner with City of Lights Dream Center in Walker County for production and distribution of the Jesus Cakes. People in the rehab program at City of Lights, along with those employed at the Birmingham café, learn job skills as well as life skills.
“We hire people (from rehab facilities), and we start training them basically how to live a structured lifestyle – coming in on time, giving them a uniform – there are certain things you can and cannot do,” Samantha says. “We work together with the rehab. As they work on their spiritual, mental and emotional recovery, we get to train them and work on their occupational wellness, training them for their next steps.”
“What we learned when we went to rehab,” Luis says, “is it helps you structurally, mentally and physically, but it doesn’t help you financially. You see what I’m saying? So we came up with a culinary arts program that is the Jesus Cakes. We teach these individuals how to make these cakes and how to do the distribution of these cakes. It became a workforce program.”
Each individually packaged Jesus Cake has a piece of Scripture inside the lid. “When people open up the Jesus Cake, they get the Scripture, whether they are believers or not,” Samantha says. “And so it’s twofold, you know, God is touching those that purchase the cake … and also touching those who are producing the Jesus Cakes in the rehab and helping to provide another income for the ministry as well.” Learn more at www.jesuscake.com.
Jesus Cakes are available at the café, at Bama Health Foods in west Birmingham and at the Food Giant in Adamsville. Luis and Samantha are actively working to get them in nine more supermarkets by the end of the year.
Finally, Luis and Samantha are partnering with the city of Graysville to build a diner in that small town in northwest Jefferson County. Luis says it will be a meat and three offering “Southern food with a Puerto Rican twist.” Like Miami Fusion, “this one is going to be focused on second chance-opportunities for those in recovery,” Samantha adds. The diner and an adjacent playground and a small amphitheater with space for food trucks will give Graysville residents “a place to come and have a good time, to support their own community and to support the individuals who will be in recovery.”
Meanwhile, they continue to build their own community in Birmingham. It’s a community that invites people to stay downtown after work, to walk over to the café from their lofts and apartments or to make the short drive from West End or from over the mountain.
“You have a place that you can feel safe to come to,” Luis says. “You have a place that will treat you like family. You have a place that no matter the color of your skin … you are welcome here.”
“On a lot of days, it does look like a melting pot here,” Samantha says. “We have a wide variety of people with different backgrounds and cultures in here. Working-class, people with a lot of money, people with not a lot of money.”
“The homeless people come in, and we feed them,” Luis adds.
“I really believe that God has called this biracial couple to the center of Birmingham to bring everybody together,” Samantha says. “That’s what I believe.”
Miami Fusion Café
2015 Fifth Ave. North
Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Lunch served Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner served Friday 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Closed on Sunday