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Americanizing Cuban burgers set this chef apart

Man standing beside his restaurant CubanBurger sign on a wall.
Stereo Vision Photography
Chef Steve Pizarro Americanized Cuba-styled fritas for his Harrisonburg restaurant, CubanBurger.

Steve Pizarro delayed his dream of owning a Cuban restaurant for 20 years. Instead, he focused on a career as a software project manager specializing in health care information systems.

On a winter day in 2011, his boss unwittingly jumpstarted his culinary journey by telling him that Pizarro’s job was being eliminated and he had a month left, recalled the founder, general manager and executive chef of the popular CubanBurger in Harrisonburg.

“I couldn’t have been more grateful and thankful at that moment,” Pizarro said. “I had already lost interest in what I was doing. All I could think about was this restaurant that I wanted to open that I constantly talked about. I didn’t really know what it was.

“Going from [the boss’s] office to my car to go to lunch, I thought, ‘Since I hadn’t worked in a kitchen before, what can I pull off?’ I thought burgers: I grew up eating fritas so I thought I’d try to do a burger joint, because I had never seen that anywhere,’” recalled Pizarro, a first-generation Cuban American who celebrated his restaurant’s 10th anniversary in July.

The self-taught chef, 57, credits his success, in part, to “Americanizing” the Cuba-styled burgers called fritas that he had enjoyed eating in Tampa and Miami until his family moved to Northern Virginia when he was 13. Fritas, slider-style burgers, were popular with tourists seeking street food served out of carts in Havana during the 1920s and ’30s. Made with ground beef and chorizo with smoked paprika, the burger is topped with onions, spicy ketchup and thinly grated potatoes.

Fritas disappeared after the revolution in the early 1960s and reappeared in Miami around 1969, Pizarro said. “I never really seen them outside Tampa and Miami. I didn’t want to do them as sliders. I wanted to Americanize them …and make a regular-size burger.”

Pizarro also praises his wife and co-owner, Shami, for the restaurant flourishing. Shami is responsible for CubanBurger’s ambience and hospitality. “She’s the one who really makes people feel at home,” he said.

His menu, which also includes such signature dishes as black beans and a flan recipe from his great-grandmother, Estela Guzman, garners high praise from customers and critics. Thrillist named his El Vaquero burger among Virginia’s 20 best burgers in 2022. This burger features a patty that is 80% beef and 20% pork shoulder ground together with smoked paprika and topped with Flank steak, rum-caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and spicy smoked aioli.

While Pizarro managed and operated restaurants in D.C. and Miami for 10 years when he was younger and felt, “if I get to do my own thing someday, it will be a restaurant.” He also felt family pressure to do something else — so he left the business “cold turkey” and helped a pal start up a medical billing firm in Miami.

In 2008, while working as a software project manager, he relocated to Alexandria with the goal of opening a Cuban restaurant. On weekends, he spent time relaxing in the Shenandoah Valley in a condo his mom owned. After he lost his job, he moved into the condo. While unemployed and trying to figure out how to get into the restaurant business, he played in a cover band. The owner of Cave Ridge Vineyard, located outside of Mount Jackson, asked the group to perform.

Instead of performing, Pizarro convinced the owner to let him cook Cuban-style sandwiches.

Pizarro couldn’t get a press to make the sandwiches, so he made burgers. “They went over really well, so I kept coming back on weekends. They were a winery, so they had a tasting room in Harrisonburg and a kitchen space available and they wanted someone to make food for the wine bar,” said Pizarro. He subleased a 100-square-foot kitchen space behind Wine On Water in downtown Harrisonburg. By the end of the year, CRV decided not to renew the lease and Pizarro took over all 2,200sq. ft. for CubanBurger.

Operating a restaurant, as much joy as it brings, also presents challenges like worker shortages. Pizarro recently found himself cooking during the day and bartending at night, a skill he picked up from working at Nathan’s, a legendary D.C. watering hole in Georgetown. The whole time he worked there, he thought about owning a sandwich shop.

Pizarro has no regret pursuing his passion as a chef later in life. His advice for other self-taught chefs is to keep learning from others. “Nowadays Information is easy to find. YouTube is a great resource for me with regards to stuff in the kitchen, cocktails and learning how to operate and manage a restaurant properly. Lately, I’ve been going to CHAT GPT for recipes. It’s pretty accurate.”

Pizarro’s bucket list includes the expansion of CubanBurger into a local restaurant group. “I’d like to grow it locally. I like where we live. I feel I have a concept that I can scale and take to other states. But I don’t want to travel so I want to see how I can grow it around here like in Elkton and the Massanutten Resort.”

The meal he will prepare for the cooking demonstration at the VPM booth at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market on Sept. 23 is a recipe from his mother, Estela Prieto, for arroz con pollo a la chorrera, a soupy chicken and rice dish. He’s never made it. Now, he will cook it twice: “I’ll have to make it before the demonstration so that I’m comfortable.”

Already, he knows his version will include changes. “I will tweak it somewhat because, you know, I’m my mom’s son — and that’s just what I do.”

Chicken, tomatoes, peas and rice dish in a round pan
Stereo Vision Photography
Steve Pizarro will prepare Arroz Con Pollo A La Chorrera for sampling at VPM’s booth at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market on September 23.