For Mango Cafe owner Guillermo Mendez and his family, the choice to open their own restaurant last September was an all or nothing decision.
“We pretty much laid out all of our cards on this. We dropped all of our jobs. All of our savings went into getting it started,” Mendez said.
Mendez’s deck appears to have been stacked in his favor.
Located near the University of Notre Dame’s campus at 1740 South Bend Ave., Mango Cafe is one of only two restaurants in the area serving traditional Venezuelan cuisine.
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Reasonable prices and sizable portions have attracted a devoted student crowd, as well as curious epicureans and casual diners.
“I’m putting our food, our culture, out there to people. There are a lot of people that didn’t have any idea (about the food),” Mendez said. “They come here now at least once a week. People are very hooked on it.”
1740 South Bend Ave.
HOURS:9 a.m. to 11 p.m.Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday
Mendez’s mother and father; his wife, Renee; and his grandmother, Paulina Trejo, assist in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
Many of Mango Cafe’s recipes were passed down from Trejo, in the vein of “criollo” cooking.
“That’s very homemade, very authentic food,” Mendez explained. “As you can tell, there’s not a freezer here or anything. Everything here is homemade. We make everything here from scratch.”
Placed prominently at the top of the menu is the pabellion entree. Comprised of black beans, white rice, a fried egg, avocado, seasoned shredded beef and fried plantains topped with salty white cheese, pabellion is a staple of the Venezuelan diet and considered by many to be the country’s national dish.
The lean proteins of pabellion, priced at $9.75, provide necessary nourishment without weighing heavily on one’s stomach or wallet.
Mendez plans to restructure the menu over the coming weeks and intends to soon include daily specials on already-available items like pepitos, a popular street food-style sandwich, and deep-fried empanadas.
The desserts of Mango Cafe, not to be overlooked, deserve a deal of their own.
Slices of sweet quesillo, a custardy combination of unsweetened milk, eggs, vanilla and powdered milk which Mendez family patriarch Mario described as being between flan and cheesecake, dissolve smoothly with each bite. The other dessert on the menu is a tres leches cake.
“We’ve got a lot of flavor, man. That’s what it is,” Mendez said.
Combine Mendez’s years of kitchen work around the South Bend area with his elders’ knowledge of native cooking and it’s difficult to disagree.
“I always had a passion for cooking. I’ve always liked to cook. But now, I know that I’m doing my own flavors, my own food,” Mendez said. “When you work at other restaurants, you’ve got to follow those recipes.”
“Here, it’s our food. It feels great working for yourself,” he said. “There’s nothing better than that.”