How the Dominican Café is more than food to the people of Wilmington
Rebeca GÃ³mez 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 CafÃ©.
The establishment has been in the GÃ³mez 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 cafÃ© has become deeply rooted in the neighborhood and its customers, representing more than a restaurant to some.
âThat’s life,â said Iz Balleto, community advocate and longtime Dominican CafÃ© regular. “No matter what time of day you show up at the Dominican CafÃ©, 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.
The customers have become regulars and the children have grown into adults, returning to the restaurant they enjoyed with their families years before. GÃ³mez has seen these generations of families cycle through his restaurant and eat the same dishes as his parents.
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GÃ³mez 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, GÃ³mez patted the cashier on the shoulder. “Two sugars,” she reminded him.
GÃ³mez, 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, GÃ³mez’s father, Andres, owned a grocery store in the Dominican Republic.
In college, GÃ³mez spent all his free time helping his parents run the business. Then, in 2005, she bought the cafÃ© – a mostly symbolic change, given that she was already the owner.
âI ran the business the same way when my father owned as I did when I owned it,â she said. “It was always the same appreciation and gratitude to the customers and the work.”
In 2011, GÃ³mez 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.
Despite changes in ownership, Dominican CafÃ© 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.
âAs someone who has lived in the city of Wilmington for about 20 years now, I have never seen them close their doors,â Balleto said. âIt’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 GÃ³mez’s parents who often helped cook when they visited.
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Despite their best efforts, GÃ³mez’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.
âWe were looking at the camera and saying ‘this woman is crazy’,â GÃ³mez said. âBut 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.
âI want people to realize that when you walk down Fourth Street, that continued to feed people,â Balleto asked. âLove and respect for the Dominican CafÃ© for having always been there for the people. “
Today, GÃ³mez 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, GÃ³mez brought a slightly different twist to traditional Latin American dishes.
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 CafÃ©, GÃ³mez 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.”
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, GÃ³mez 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 GÃ³mez, the establishment is more than a business.
âIt’s home,â 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 CafÃ© 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.