By Neil Cotiaux | Photo by Doug Khrenovsky
Open less than a year, the lunch, dinner, and takeout establishment just steps from Berea’s Baldwin Wallace University campus reflects owner Luis Roman’s passion for serving up fresh, innovative Latin cuisine along with his magnetic personality.
Walk into the cozy, nine-table restaurant at the corner of Seminary Road and Church Street and you’re bombarded with color and energy. Bright orange walls, a Pandora soundtrack that Roman resets to patrons’ tastes, and the visual pop of guava, pineapple chutney, Spanish rice, and rotisserie-cooked chicken combine to welcome you into a new world of cuisine in the western suburbs.
“I wanted to be the Selena of food,” a culinary crossover artist, Roman, who, with his brother Eric, opened The Campus Grille in March, says.
The establishment’s fare is fresh, simple, and to the point. The 12 items on the menu reflect but are not confined to the brothers’ Puerto Rican heritage and include such fare as split rotisserie chicken over brown rice and black beans (Pollo Asado), roasted pork shoulder over yellow rice and Spanish-style beans (pernil al horno), fried plantains mashed and molded with garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings (Mofongo, with either pork or chicken), and split rotisserie chicken over coconut rice and a spicy pineapple and mango chutney (Coco Tropical). Entrees and appetizers can be washed down with one of several tropical drinks like ginger beer and Jamaican Kola.
“Caribbean street food meets Main Street,” is how Luis Roman describes it, emphasizing the freshness of the eatery’s ingredients. “We try to do everything in a small amount,” Roman says. “There’s nothing ever processed in this establishment and nothing ever frozen.” And no microwave, he adds.
Most mornings, Roman heads to area markets. “There’s something about picking out your own produce and your own meat,” he says.
By the time he opens at noon, he says, “I usually have a line.” Sometimes, that includes celebrities.
Cleveland Browns nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin stops in periodically, and Luis, 39, and Eric, 34, are always ready for him. “He is not a little kid. … I kind of make him a picnic basket,” Luis says with a sly smile.
Another celebrity dropping by, Jason Beudert, known as Jason The Food Guy on Q104, ranks The Campus Grille’s Cuban Sandwich at No. 2 on his Top Five list. “It is the real deal,” Beudert told his listeners recently.
The favorable review comes as no surprise to Luis Cartagena, a strategic planning advisor at the Minority Business Development Agency Business Center who helped Roman identify target markets and develop budget projections.
Cartagena left New Jersey and Roman left the Bronx at about the same time and resettled in the Hispanic Village neighborhood of Cleveland, becoming fast friends.
“All of us single guys would basically end up at his house around dinnertime. He’s been handy around the kitchen for a long time,” the business advisor says.
Roman, who graduated from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, possesses a “great personality” that helps promote his fare, Cartagena adds.
At The Campus Grille, Cartagena gravitates to the pernil (roasted pork shoulder) while his wife is “all about the mofongo.”
Another customer, Berea resident Steve Siedlecki, executive director of the A Christmas Story House in Tremont, says that while he was at first confused by the restaurant’s non-Latino-sounding name, “It was a nice little surprise. … You could definitely tell that it was fresh and was made from scratch.”
Luis Roman is pleased with the reception that his establishment has received. “I have exceeded my expectations by three-fold,” he says.
While Roman focuses on Berea’s 18-34 crowd, he also plans to make the most of catering opportunities presented by the city’s planned expansion of Coe Lake Park, the annual Latino Night held at the fairgrounds in Berea, and the Browns training facility and Southwest General Hospital nearby.
Longer term, he hopes to develop a network of franchises in other university cities around Ohio.
And if you happen to have a craving for some special Puerto Rican soul food, he’ll make it. “On the side, if I have it in stock,” he says in a whisper.
For more information: TheCampusGrille.com