With its dark carpeting and chandelier lighting, La Posada in Old Brooklyn feels less like a restaurant and more like a church banquet hall. Which is exactly what it is: The space is rented from St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church.
La Posada has been open for a month now. The food is great, but the church-basement feel doesn't exactly provide the best atmosphere. That's all right with owner Jose Melendez, though; he's used to building from the ground up.
Melendez is an affable owner. On the day we talk he's dressed in shorts and an Ohio State T-shirt; his daughter will be starting there this fall on a full ride. His journey to the restaurant business has been unexpected and, at times, tumultuous. He first learned about cooking from his mother and grandmother in Puerto Rico, "old-school ladies with that traditional kitchen experience."
When I ask what brought him to Cleveland, he says, "Hard divorce." He was 14 when his parents split and his aunt convinced his mother to move to Cleveland. The plan was for young Jose to learn English at Lincoln West High School and return to Puerto Rico. "But then I fell in love," he says. He attended Cleveland State for chemical engineering, got married and became the father of two daughters.
How, then, did he end up living out of his car? "Hard divorce."
To earn money for an apartment, Melendez took a gig catering for Catan's Fashion in Strongsville. He was a hit. "I never realized how good a chef I was until I was exposed to the general public," he explains.
More catering jobs helped him get a place and a job selling cars. "Food saved me," he says.
Selling cars is how he met Cristina Jaramillo. Jaramillo, who was born in Mexico, had been through some hard times herself. She'd been married to a man from Colombia, and though the marriage didn't work out, she inherited some useful recipes. Jaramillo shared Melendez' passion for food, even going so far as dreaming up a "Latin buffet instead of a Chinese one: one line for Peru, one line for Puerto Rico, one line for the Dominican Republic."
Now that Jaramillo and Melendez are married, that buffet is set to become a monthly staple at La Posada.
Melendez calls his wife "someone who wants to do something with her life." She helped develop many of the fusion elements that set La Posada's menu apart. She even came up with her own sauce, a variant on traditional, flavorful cilantro-and-avocado-based Colombian sauces.
Melendez says he's working on finding a larger venue with a liquor license where he can pair his food with beer and serve Jaramillo's margaritas, which he calls "the best in Cleveland."
Melendez, who also serves as the Spanish-American Committee's board president, is an advocate for increased diversity in Cleveland's restaurant scene. "Cleveland needs to be more welcoming to Hispanic business owners," he says. "If we open up more Latino businesses, we can help the families and help the city." He suggests a partnership with the Tri-C culinary program to locate and train qualified chefs and help them into the business.
La Posada's goal, says Melendez, is to "bring something other than just the regular rice and beans." Mission accomplished.