How the Dominican Café is more than food to the people of Wilmington

Rebeca Gómez paced behind the burnt orange counter, assembling a large Cuban sandwich as dozens of golden empanadas floated in the boiling oil behind her.

The bachata-laden voices of the Dominican-American group, Aventura, spread through the speakers of a crackling radio as customers began to line up behind a makeshift plastic and pipe divider. Others sat towards the back of the restaurant, enjoying mounds of fluffy orange rice, roast chicken, and delicious homemade passion fruit juice.

It was lunchtime at the Dominican Café.

Dominican coffee owner Rebeca Gómez.

The establishment has been in the Gómez family for over 40 years – passed down from her uncle and aunt to her father and, finally, to her. Despite occupying only part of the neighborhood, the multigenerational restaurant has become the cornerstone of the West Fourth Street corridor and the Hilltop community.

Over the years, the café has become deeply rooted in the neighborhood and its customers, representing more than a restaurant to some.

“That’s life,” said Iz Balleto, community advocate and longtime Dominican Café regular. “No matter what time of day you show up at the Dominican Café, there is life in it and that’s what everyone loves.”

This life can be felt in the conversations held across the counter where a weathered and crumpled menu is taped to the screen. As more and more people begin to enter, a buzz of chatter and casual laughter may begin to be heard.

Dominican café workers Noemi De León, right, and Genesis Maldonado.

The customers have become regulars and the children have grown into adults, returning to the restaurant they enjoyed with their families years before. Gómez has seen these generations of families cycle through his restaurant and eat the same dishes as his parents.

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Gómez and his team got to know the catalog of regulars – and their orders. When a man arrives at the front of the line, he is greeted with his request before he can speak.

“Coffee, right? Asked the cashier.

Then, as the man nodded in response, Gómez patted the cashier on the shoulder. “Two sugars,” she reminded him.

Gómez, now a mother of two, has been helping the restaurant since 2000, when her father bought it from her aunt and uncle. Before migrating to the United States with his family in 1994, Gómez’s father, Andres, owned a grocery store in the Dominican Republic.

Rebeca Gómez, owner of the Dominican Café is pictured outside her restaurant on Monday, August 2, 2021.

In college, Gómez spent all his free time helping his parents run the business. Then, in 2005, she bought the café – a mostly symbolic change, given that she was already the owner.

“I ran the business the same way when my father owned as I did when I owned it,” she said. “It was always the same appreciation and gratitude to the customers and the work.”

In 2011, Gómez sold the business back to her father in order to try and start another restaurant on her own while helping run the cafe. After a 10-year hiatus, she returned as the restaurant owner this year.

Dominican Café manager Noemi De León is preparing lunch for a Dominican Café customer on Monday, August 2, 2021.

Despite changes in ownership, Dominican Café has retained its food, prices and hours of operation for over 20 years, keeping its doors open seven days a week. Even on milestone holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, its doors are open.

“As someone who has lived in the city of Wilmington for about 20 years now, I have never seen them close their doors,” Balleto said. “It’s important for the community.

It was not until last March that the restaurant had to closed for three months due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic in the United States The shutdown was intended, in part, to help protect some of the elderly staff, as well as Gómez’s parents who often helped cook when they visited.

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Despite their best efforts, Gómez’s mother, Aurelinda, would often cook extra food and walk out from the back of the restaurant and cross the alley to give it to the regular customers she called to pick it up.

“We were looking at the camera and saying ‘this woman is crazy’,” Gómez said. “But there was no one who could take that away from him. That’s how she is – very generous.

With the help of community organizations, the restaurant also provided food to hospitals and churches as the pandemic worsened – sewing them further into the fabric of the community.

“I want people to realize that when you walk down Fourth Street, that continued to feed people,” Balleto asked. “Love and respect for the Dominican Café for having always been there for the people. “

Kathy Trejeda carries a platter of roast pork to the Dominican Café on Monday, August 2, 2021.

Today, Gómez continues to offer affordable rates to the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood that is home to a variety of residents of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. In an effort to cater for different customs and tastes, Gómez brought a slightly different twist to traditional Latin American dishes.

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One of these dishes is their tripe soup, or sopa de mondongo, a popular dish in Latin America that is served in different ways, depending on the country you are in. In the Dominican Republic, for example, it’s often served in a thicker fashion with a tomato paste base. In Puerto Rico, however, it is served soup style.

At the Dominican Café, Gómez finds a happy medium.

“It’s not like Puerto Rico but it’s not like the Dominican Republic either,” she said. “It’s a combination, but a lot of people like our style of making.”

A platter of chicken, rice and beans is pictured at the Dominican Café on Monday, August 2, 2021.

This combination of styles and cultures has found its way into other dishes on the menu. Their Cuban sandwich now comes with avocado and their signature French toast is made with vanilla imported from the Dominican Republic.

Going forward, Gómez hopes to open a second location in Middletown while retaining the restaurant’s food, affordability, culture and historic vibe. Her 17-year-old son even offered to take the reins once she chooses to retire, continuing the tradition and keeping the cafe in her family.

For Gómez, the establishment is more than a business.

“It’s home,” she said. “It will always be my home.”

For regulars, the restaurant has become more than a restaurant, offering a sense of life and belonging where the doors will always be open and a seat free. It’s a place where everyone knows your name – and your order.

The Dominican Café is located at 1223 W. 4th St. in Wilmington and is open seven days a week.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or connect with him on Twitter @joseicastaneda.

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