Photo by Jordanne Laurito

On Saturdays at La Cocina de Abuela, tables are filled with diners donning guayaberas and straw fedoras, groups chatting in Spanish and English, and children sporting colorful fútbol jerseys of various Latin American teams. Some customers recognize one another from their previous visit, and push together tables so they can share a meal.

“We only opened in February, and we already have loyal customers that come two or three times a week,” owner Sara Puyana said.

Abuela’s may be new in town, but Puyana is no stranger to Gainesville’s food scene. She and her husband co-own Flaco’s, a favorite among residents and students alike.

When Puyana Flaco’s opened in 2006, the restaurant served her needs as a 24-year-old: it was fast, cheap and open after 2 a.m.

Now a mother of three, Puyana has created La Cocina de Abuela to cater to families and friends looking for a homestyle, sit-down experience.

Located in the corner of a plaza on NW 23rd Avenue between Ward’s and the Greyhound station, “Abuela’s” is bright, spacious and decorated with mismatched furniture you might find in your grandmother’s home. Cuckoo clocks watch over the service counter, and a repurposed, multi-colored vanity offers trays of hot sauces and homemade tea for customers to enjoy.  

This only makes sense, given the restaurant is named after Puyana’s mother.

“She’s at the heart of everything we do,” Puyana said. “Plus, she’s just really got a knack for cooking.”

Puyana’s abuela comes from Barranquilla, a city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Her culinary repertoire echoes that. Where Flaco’s (the good-natured nickname for Puyana’s husband, Tim) has a set menu of sandwiches and baked goods, Puyana said that Abuela’s explores a rotating menu of traditional Columbian-style dishes, such as oxtail or tripe soup, while maintaining staples, like yellow rice and black beans.

“The experience is as if a friend invited you to their home, and the parents cooked up an authentic meal for you to try,” Puyana said.

Puyana said one popular choice is the coconut rice, a fragrant and sweet complement to the restaurant’s savory meat dishes. It can also stand alone as a delicious (and filling!) treat.

And speaking of the meats, don’t bother grabbing a knife on your way to your seat. Any meat entree you pick is most likely so juicy and tender, you could slice it with a spoon.

Puyana smiled as she recalled that at the restaurant’s opening, they had invited a Catholic priest to bless the new establishment.

“We had a whole clergy in here,” she said, her hands waving towards one side of the dining room, then to the other. “There was holy water over here, over there, everywhere.”

And much like an after-Mass congregation, Abuela’s customers may recognize each other and extend their arms in greeting, joining each other for lunch despite arriving separately. Puyana herself waits on patrons and friends, skillfully plating their meals as they tell her about their lives since she saw them last.

“The experience is as if a friend invited you to their home, and the parents cooked up an authentic meal for you to try,” Puyana said.

At this point, Puyana has spent more time in Gainesville than her hometown of Miami, and touches of this city shine through from the quiet surrounding neighborhood to the homemade kombucha station.

On Saturdays, local band Latin Sound Machine performs upbeat Latin tunes, covering classics like “Oye Como Va” and soulful ballads, which reverberate from the glass windows to the kitchen and back.

In the future, Puyana says customers can expect outdoor seating (currently under construction), as well as a new drink: in-house cider.

Between running three restaurants and being a full-time mom, Puyana says she can’t always be around.

“But rest assured,” she said, “Abuela is back there in the kitchen, making sure everything is just right.” 


Abuela’s

 

125 NW 23rd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32609

• • •

Flan

 

Ingredients

• 1/2 cup of sugar (the sugar is for the coating not the blender)

• One can of condensed milk

• One can of evaporated milk

• Four eggs

• Vanilla (to your taste)

Instructions

1. Blend everything, then set it down while you coat the lidded pan in melted sugar (leave time for bubbles to go away). You have to be very careful making the sugar coat. It’s very hot and hurts a lot if you get any on your skin.

2. Next, you take a saucepan and melt half a cup of sugar at a low heat. You want a clear caramel, not a dark caramel as that will burn and make your flan taste burnt.

3. Take the clear caramel and cover the pan with it (like you would do with butter if you were making a cake). All the sides and bottom must be covered.

4. Then, pour the blended ingredients in the pan and cover.

5. Now, take a bigger pan and place the lidded pan in it. Add water to the bigger pan so the lidded pan is a little less than half-covered in water. This is called a “baño de Maria.”

6. Cook the flan for in an oven for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.