Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Roberto Castre of Latin Bites Cafe, On Opening His Restaurant After Kidney Donation Surgery

Yesterday, we talked to Latin Bites' Executive Chef and Owner Roberto Castre about his long and winding road to settling in Houston. Today, he tells us the story of how Latin Bites came into being.

EOW: You, your sister Rita, and her husband Carlos are partners, tell me the history behind that.

RC: Rita, Carlos and me, we all worked for Chili's when we were students in Lima, Peru. At the time, Rita and Carlos were not boyfriend and girlfriend or anything. We were friends, and we were working together. And one day -- this is in 1998 -- we went to Senor Frog's in Lima, and we said "One day, we're going to open a restaurant!"

EOW: And so you started the catering business...

RC: We worked for eight months at Latin Bites Catering, so we saved some money, and Carlos had some money because he sold his house, so we started looking for a very small restaurant. A year beforehand, Carlos took me to the location on Nance when it was a burger joint, and he told me, "I would like this place to be our restaurant one day." And one day I was looking on Craigslist, and I found this exact restaurant for sale. So we called this guy, and we tried to negotiate with him, and he agreed with what we offered, and told us to come back on Monday to sign the papers. We went out and celebrated, and we were very happy. But when we came back on Monday, he told us he couldn't do it because someone had offered him more money than us. So we were very sad.


EOW: But you eventually got that restaurant.

RC: Yes, it was a blessing in disguise. At that same time, Carlos got a call for the kidney transplant, because somebody had cancelled their surgery. I had told him before, if some day he needed a transplant, I can do it. So we talked, and I said okay, I can take the test [for compatibility], and they said I was a match. So two weeks later we did the surgery.

EOW: It was a major surgery, right? And you donated your kidney.

RC: Yes. I donated my kidney. I have big scar about 10 inches down the middle of my torso. My surgery was five hours. Carlos's surgery was eight hours. And for some reason, the surgery didn't work.

EOW: When did you find out it didn't work?

RC: We found out right away.

EOW: And there was no way to save the kidney?

RC: When they tried to clean up one of the arteries, they messed up, so the blood didn't go to the kidney and it died after it was implanted. So they did the implantation, Carlos went to ICU, he stayed for 12 hours, and that's how they realized that there was no blood flowing. They did another surgery to try and fix it, but when they went to the surgery, they realized they couldn't fix it. 85 percent of the kidney died, and only 15 percent of it works. It's still in there, but it only works 15 percent. And they took both his kidneys out, so all he has left is my 15 percent working kidney. That's why he's doing dialysis. The sad thing is, that they did the compatibility test one year post-surgery and found that I was an exact match.

EOW: Oh no! That's so sad!

RC: I know, it is, but there's nothing we can do about it. Anyway, I had taken a month off for the surgery, and two weeks into it, I was browsing Craigslist again and now, I found the same restaurant, and it's for sale!

EOW: Again?

RC: [smiles] Again. This was around two months later from the first time we tried to get it. For whatever reason, the people that took the restaurant didn't want it, so we called -- two weeks after my surgery -- and we made an agreement. And that time, we saved half off what we would have paid if we had bought it the first time. But because we paid money for the surgeries, we had less money, and because Carlos had two surgeries, he was at home in bed. So me and Rita, we did everything by ourselves. We painted, we cleaned the floors, we polished the floors. During the first days, I would clean for three minutes, and sit for five minutes, because I felt tired from the surgery. So we did that for one month, and I recovered.

EOW: So it took one month to get the restaurant ready.

RC: Yes, we started to hire some people, just the minimum of people. I started with just one guy in the kitchen and me, that's it. And we did everything - we cleaned, we cooked, we prepped, we did everything. When we opened the restaurant, we didn't even have enough money to pay the rent. So we just prayed that people would come, and the people showed up.

EOW: You opened the doors, and people just came?

RC: Yes, and you know what? We just did Facebook. No more. We put it on the Facebook that we were gonna open a restaurant, and we post, and post, and post and post. We didn't do an opening, we just opened the doors. We had like 40 people on the first day. And then things started coming. We got the reviews, the interviews...

EOW: Okay, so fast-forward, you had Latin Bites for a year and a half. Did you get some investors or is this new venture just you?

RC: We have one new investor, my cousin.

EOW: So it's still all in the family, but your budget is bigger this time.

RC: Yes, our budget is bigger, we saved some money. We were blessed to find this place because we looked everywhere, and you find a good place, but there's no parking lot, you find a good parking lot, but it's not a good place, and when we came to this place we really liked it, because I love open kitchens, and the parking lot is big.

EOW: So tell me how this new restaurant is going to be different than the old one.

RC: Here, I have the power to do more dishes. I can work on the presentations, I have a bigger budget. I can bring more dishes because at the other restaurant, it was too small.

EOW: I thought the menu was already pretty extensive at the old restaurant. You had at least 20 dishes at the old restaurant.

RC: Yes, but now we're going to have 25 more. We'll have around 40-something dishes. We'll have more dishes in the cebiche bar. I think this is the first cebiche bar in Houston. We're going to do about 19 dishes -- cebiches and tiraditos -- at the cebiche bar. We're doing one called cebiche de conchas (scallops), the pescadore cebiche (mixed fish), a mussel cebiche and many more.

EOW: What about entrees?

RC: We're going to do Peruvian tamales, anticuchos (beef heart skewers), conchitas a la parmesana. It's scallops on the shell, with some butter, aji amarillo, shallots, garlic, parsley, cilantro, basil, pisco, lime and parmesan and mozzarella cheese that we put in the oven, and then torch to get the cheese melted.

EOW: It sounds so good, I already I know that I want that!

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Castre's new cebiches and more.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham