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(Editorâ€™s note: This is the latest in a series of weekly reports about the new city of Central Falls, now clear of bankruptcy and proceeding anew to provide for its residents.)
CENTRAL FALLS â€“ People come from all over the country â€“ indeed, from all over the world â€” to visit Federal Hill in Providence and they come largely for the fine Italian restaurants that line Atwells Avenue.
Sure, every once in a while, an ugly incident like a shooting or car wreck might mar the image of the Hill, yet the allure of this former Mafia haven seems permanent. Ritzy shops, art galleries and clothing boutiques rival the restaurants for attention.
Why, wonders Sergio Tabares, couldnâ€™t the same be said of Broad Street in Central Falls someday?
Tabares, 39, is a native of Colombia who came to this country 13 years ago with his two younger brothers, Christian and Geovanny. The three brothers opened a small restaurant on Broad Street five years ago, but soon outgrew it. So they purchased property next door, completely gutted it, spent a total of about $300,000 and are now the proprietors of La Casona, 768 Broad St., which opened in December. The Spanish name means â€ślarge house,â€ť one for a big family.
The restaurant seats a total of 100 people, in the main dining room, a balcony area upstairs and a patio outdoors, serving authentic Colombian food at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yes, the food is authentic because the brothersâ€™ mother, Gloria, is in charge of the kitchen and, in Colombia, she was a chef who taught other chefs how to cook, Tabares says.
â€śThe whole family works here,â€ť he said of the eateryâ€™s 20 employees. â€śThe whole building is a business for our family, and we are giving jobs to people in the community, too.â€ť Above the restaurant in the three-story building are three rented apartments.
The La Casona complex takes up more than two blocks along busy Broad Street, and it includes a bakery with a separate entrance, the restaurant, the patio and an expansive parking lot. Sergio is hopeful that other business owners in the area will see what the Tabares brothers have done and follow suit.
â€śThe impact to the community,â€ť he says, â€śthat for us is very important.â€ť He points to a Mexican restaurant almost across the street and reveals that its owner now also wants to build a patio. Meanwhile, unrelated to the Tabares brothers, several other Latino restaurants and bakeries are clustered along Broad and Dexter streets.
â€śCentral Falls, itâ€™s not like itâ€™s a beautiful place,â€ť Tabares says, â€śbut weâ€™re thinking if everybody did a little bit, we can show them â€“ the people from outside â€“ that this city has something to offer them. We can have, maybe we can be like, Federal Hill, where people will come to see the Latin flavor in this area.â€ť
There is plenty of Latin flavor at La Casona.
Just about every dish on the menu is Colombian, even breakfast meals like â€śCalentado Casona,â€ť rice and beans with eggs and meat. â€śChicharron Picado con Arepa,â€ť fried pork rinds and corn, is one of six appetizers.
Traditional dishes include â€śPlato Montanero,â€ť which Sergio says means â€śfood from the mountain,â€ť a mix of beef, pork, chicken or ground beef with rice, beans, chorizo, fried pork rinds, sweet plantain, corn arepa and egg. Soups, salads, a quick menu for those in a hurry, a kidsâ€™ menu and cocktails round out the offerings.
Inside the restaurant, signs of Colombia are everywhere. Custom-made tables have etched on each table-top a map of a different department, or state, of the South American country with an info box to add details, written in English. Coffee beans, a proud product of Colombia, are scattered under the glass of one table-top. Each light fixture along the walls is adorned with a plaque bearing a colorful Colombian symbol, such as an orchid or macaw.
â€śLittle things like this,â€ť Sergio says, referring to the outdoor patio, â€świll change the area.â€ť The patio has about seven well-spaced tables shaded by umbrellas, surrounded by a low stone wall topped with plants and shrubs, illuminated by old-fashioned lamp posts and tiki torches. The sprinkle of falling water from a fountain on the patio blunts the sound of passing traffic. To date, Tabares says, there has been no vandalism, no graffiti, no damages done to La Casona.
The building, when the Tabares brothers took it over, was â€ślike an empty box,â€ť Sergio says. â€śEverything you see inside that building was done by us.â€ť The brothers were the ones who oversaw the work, hiring workmen for the specialty jobs, but doing a lot of the heavy labor themselves, he explained. They used their own ideas, and those of family members, for the decor.
Seeing Mayor James Diossa take over the city in January was a godsend for his fellow Colombians. â€śWe feel our work has not been in vain because he cares about business people and having good businesses,â€ť Sergio says. â€śWe feel secure because we have somebody who will give us a hand and who will support the people who are doing hard work to make the area grow.â€ť
The brothers are now working to add a grocery store and an ice cream shop to the La Casona site, and it seems their faith in Central Falls is limitless. â€śCentral Falls has been through some difficult times, but weâ€™re always looking at the future,â€ť Sergio says.
â€śWe have to start building something better, for our kids, for our future. And believe me, if we had more time and more money, weâ€™d be spending more in this city. We have to try to do as much as possible, to keep working for the community, and if others follow, this area will change a lot.â€ť