If you had told Flor Strollo she and her husband, Joe, would one day own and operate a Cuban restaurant in Rock Hill years ago, her reaction would have been “Yeah, right.”
Both had worked for years in the postal service and had been traveling nearly an hour from Concord to Rock Hill’s Carlos Cafe for the cuisine Flor Strollo had eaten as a small child in Pinar del Rio, a province in Cuba.
Joe Strollo said he had gotten “the itch” to do something new, and originally, they wanted to open an Italian restaurant. However, when the opportunity to own Carlos Cafe arose, they jumped at the chance.
Now, four years later, business has boomed so much that they are closing the Cherry Road location and opening a new location in Tega Cay next month.
“People come from Charlotte, Huntersville, Greenville, Columbia, just to eat on the weekends,” Flor Strollo said.
It’s a bittersweet move, the couple said Thursday, but one that will allow them to welcome more customers.
The new location at 1135 Stonecrest Blvd. gives them more opportunity to grow, Joe Frollo explained. It has twice the amount of seating inside, outdoor seating and a full bar.
They want to offer cigar-rolling demonstrations, karaoke, open-mic nights and salsa dancing, he said.
“The size will give us more opportunities to do something like that,” he said.
No specific date is set, but they are looking at a mid- to late-May opening.
“It’s brisk because they know we’re leaving,” Joe Strollo said of business Thursday.
Customers who came in during the lunch crowd Thursday said they’ll follow the Strollos to the new Carlos Cafe when it opens.
Felix and Cynthia Lopez have been avid customers since 2003. Felix Lopez goes for the masas de fuerco, a pork dish, while Cynthiz Lopez is a fan of the vaca frita, fried beef. Their triplet girls love the rice and beans.
“This gives you the flavor and ambience,” said Feliz Lopez, who is Puerto Rican. “You get the feeling like you’re in Calle Ocho or Havana. ... It’s the closest to home I can get.”
Felix Lopez also sells cigars at the restaurant, but in the new location, he’ll have more space to sell more of them.
Mark and Katie Nasser stopped in for lunch and visit at least several times a month.
While Mark Nasser goes for the Cuban sandwich, Katie Nasser said she always goes for the fried plaintains.
“You have to try the tres leches,” she added.
They also intended to visit the new location.
Charlie Ruffalo operates Substation II, but stopped in to tell them good luck and that he’d make sure to visit them soon. He and his wife take every other Friday as their “date day,” and that date usually involves Carlos Cafe.
The Carlos Cafe menu and restaurant setting customers have experienced for the past four years is all a product of the Strollos’.
When they bought the restaurant, they gutted and remodeled it, and Flor Strollo used recipes she had grown up with.
Now, their signature dishes include a Cuban-style shrimp and grits, which features polenta with Gouda cheese, chorizo, jumpo shrimp and home-made marinara, served with a salad and plaintains.
Also popular is the restaurant’s surf-and-turf, with a 9-oz. skirt steak and jumbo shrimp cooked with chimichurri-garlic butter sauce.
“We give great product and we give great value,” Joe Frollo said.
He attributed a lot of the success to some of their cooks, including Le Cordon Bleu-trained Eric Masters and Mike Gann, one of the first graduates of Disney’s culinary program.
“I don’t do it all by myself,” he said. “We’re a team.”
They hope to continue to bring their unique flavors to more customers when the new location opens.
“I am Cuban,” Flor Strollo said. “To me, it wasn’t just about food.
“It’s also about my heritage, my background. I wanted to share that.”