Chef Pepe Diaz keeps a close eye on what goes on in his kitchen.
The Cuban dishes that pass from the kitchen to the dining room at La Yuma restaurant are authentic to his native country.
But, Diaz also has recipes uniquely his own.
His back story in itself is not the typical path to culinary success.
As a political prisoner of Fidel Castro, his job in jail was to take scant food staples and turn them into meals for himself and other prisoners.
Later exiled from Cuba, Diaz went first to Spain, and then, to Miami and Key West, where he nurtured a dream of becoming a restaurant entrepreneur.
Patrons of his Key West restaurant in Mallory Square – El Meson de Pepe – have been dining on Diaz’ cuisine for more than 30 years.
Now his daughter and son-in-law, Thania Diaz Clevenger and Ashley Clevenger, are bringing the family recipes to Lutz and Tampa Bay.
Ashley Clevenger is general manager; Thania Clevenger is in charge of marketing. Family matriarch, Tania Diaz, is helpmate to her 76-year-old husband, and overall consultant.
It’s a family-rooted business for five generations.
“But, nobody gets to be chef,” noted Thania Clevenger, except for her father.
La Yuma restaurant opened in Lutz in January, at 16411 N. Florida Ave., south of the apex linking U.S. 41 and Florida Avenue.
The establishment replaces a series of bars that never quite caught on, including The Lutz Area Hangout and Twisted Rooster Bar & Grill.
The bar atmosphere is gone.
La Yuma offers fine casual dining wrapped in a family centric environment.
Murals on the walls depict the journey of Cuban refugees to America, and for some — their new lives in Ybor City.
The restaurant’s name, “La Yuma,” is from the street lingo that Cubans use as a stand-in for the United States.
Some believe the term comes from a classic western, “3:10 to Yuma.” The movie, first made in 1957, had a remake in 2007.
“The whole idea was not to tell just our family’s story, but all Cubans’ story,” said Thania Clevenger.
An outdoor patio taps into island leisure. A banquet room will host weddings, parties and special events.
Latin bands perform live on Fridays and Saturdays. Cigars by Tampa’s J.C. Newman cigar company can be enjoyed with Cuba libres, Pepe’s Homemade Sangria and cocktail specialties.
The menu offers tapas, or small plates, including Cuban nachos and Camarone Al Ajillo, a pan-seared shrimp with garlic, parsley and white wine sauce.
Entrees include Cuban favorites, such as Rope Vieja and Picadillo Habanero, as well as combination platters and Paella de La Pepe. A children’s menu includes a Cuban steak platter, hamburgers and chicken fingers.
But, La Yuma isn’t by any means a replica of Diaz’ Key West restaurant. It’s a plan, years and generations in the waiting.
“We kept envisioning a different restaurant we wanted to get to do,” said Thania Clevenger. “We’d sit and daydream about it.”
Thania Clevenger is a civil and human rights attorney who grew up helping out in her father’s restaurant. She earned her law degree from Stetson University.
Ashley Clevenger is a former firefighter and U.S. Coast Guard veteran.
They moved to Tampa Bay in 2007, and to Lutz in 2011. They have one son, 5-year-old Dean Sergio, and another child due in August.
They like the area’s small town.
Ashley Clevenger said his hometown in Illinois had 850 residents. He graduated in a class of 18 students.
“It’s all about family,” he said.
This family legacy is founded on activism and dreaming.
“He essentially lost everything,” said his daughter, of her father’s journey from Cuba to America.
He met his wife Tania, also a Cuban refugee, when they both worked at a Miami restaurant. The move to Key West followed.
El Meson is still family owned and operated.
And, now, La Yuma represents another beginning.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s always in your blood,” said Thania Clevenger.
La Yuma is open Tuesday-Thursday, and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Friday and Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
For information, visit LaYuma.net.
Published April 26, 2017