Iliana (left) and Tobia Almaguer will open a brick-and-mortar version of their Cuban food truck, La Cocina Cubana, in downtown Lansing next month. They plan to keep the truck operating in the parking lot of the American Eagle Superstore after the restaurant opens.
For nearly three years, Iliana Almaguer has been serving up her home-style Cuban cuisine to Lansing diners through the window her food truck, La Cocina Cubana. She grew from a tiny truck in an Old Town parking lot to a massive trailer on one of Lansing’s busiest intersections, and sometime next month her business will take the next logical leap forward — into a fullservice brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I always (envisioned) this as a restaurant, but starting as a food truck was a great way to connect with the community first,” Almaguer said. “I didn’t know if this was something that Lansing people wanted.”
That answer appears to be an unqualified “yes.” Except for instances of extreme weather, you can usually spot half a dozen or so folks waiting for their orders in the parking lot of the American Eagle Superstore, 901 N. Larch St., on the corner of Oakland Avenue. And in the rain, sleet or hail?
“They still come, but they just wait in their cars,” Almaguer said. “They tell me they can’t wait until they can sit inside and eat.”
Almaguer’s new location will be 123 S. Washington Square in the heart of the bustling downtown Lansing lunch scene. It’s the former home of Hot Chicken Kitchen, which closed earlier this year after a fivemonth run; previously, it was a Tom + Chee and before that it was a Great Harvest Bread Co. location. Almaguer doesn’t seem concerned with the storefront’s turnover rate, and will spend the next month whipping the space into shape.
“We’re busy right now painting and bringing in tables and setting up the kitchen,” she said. “We’ve got to do everything ourselves (while we also) keep the truck running. But we’ll be able to hire three full-time employees, so that will be help out a lot.”
Almaguer plans to add more than a dozen items to her menu, including lamb and beefsteak options. She will also add breakfast and dinner dishes, as well as authentic Cuban coffee and a wide line of Cuban sodas. Almaguer’s husband, Tobia, is helping her with construction; he also handles most of the cooking — he’s spent the better part of 25 years working in the kitchens of local restaurants — and Almaguer said the new location will really give him the room he needs to make magic out of her grandmother’s recipes.
“The food truck is just too small for some of the things I want to do,” Almaguer said. “It will really help to have more storage and cooking area. I learned to cook from my grandmother, and I love to cook. The restaurant will give me the (opportunity) to make things the way we made them back home (in Cuba).”
Community first Last week, the Capital City Community Foundation nonprofit organization announced it will provide up to $1 million toward several new development projects along the downtown Lansing riverfront. The funds will match private contributions being raised from about two dozen local individuals and businesses.
“We are (currently) meeting with each one to determine which project they want to fund,” said Community Foundation Executive Vice President Laurie Baumer. “The biggest news here is the $1 million commitment in private funds for our city. Our board made a bold step with this commitment. We knew we needed to be a leader with the riverfront because no one else was.”
That commitment is the result of a brainpicking contest earlier this year called Penny for Your Thoughts, which offered to pay up to 100 people $25 (way more than a cent) for ideas of ways to improve Lansing.
“We had 59 ideas from the contest that received a prize,” Baumer said. “The idea of an ice rink came up a couple times, but the committee did not find it feasible.”
The area of focus will range from the boat launch in the Historic Cherry Hill Neighborhood to the Brenke Fish Ladder in Old Town, with projects including new kayak launches, an outdoor classroom and public seating areas with fireplaces.
“The riverfront was not an area of focus before the contest, (but) it was clear from the community’s responses that riverfront development was wanted most,” Baumer said. “There were also great ideas to improve Michigan Avenue, including an urban market, twinkle lights, a portable parklet and murals (and) those ideas have not been forgotten.”