If you had asked Valerie Espinoza just a few months ago if she’d ever open a restaurant, she would’ve answered with a resounding no. Just a few years after moving to Oregon, she was spending all the money she had to support her mother and son with her vegan Cuban pop-up restaurant, Miami Nice. She had recently taken job at Culmination Brewing as a chef, crossing her fingers that the summer’s worth of events and farmers markets would help her stay afloat.
Then, coronavirus seeped into Portland. Suddenly, she didn’t have a job, and those farmers market booths and summer festivals started disintegrating. With few other options, Espinoza decided to take the plunge and open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic.
“I’m either incredibly smart or extremely stupid,” she says, with a laugh. “We’re going to find out really soon.”
It looks like it could be the former: Opening for takeout orders on Saturday, Espinoza’s new restaurant, Miami Nice, sold out of most of what she had prepared — turns out, her Beyond beef frita cubanos, Cuban sandwiches, and dairy-free flans were a hit.
Espinoza grew up in Miami, where she lived for decades before moving to Portland. “I moved to the West Coast, and it’s a very different atmosphere,” she says. “I would try some of the Cuban food, and it wasn’t what I was used to. Becoming vegan, you could not find these products anywhere.” She started cooking for her friends at her home, and people started encouraging her to pursue it full-time. She started serving croquetas, empanadas, and her “Big Papi,” a papa rellena, at markets and festivals, and eventually landed a weekly slot at Culmination. She even started selling her vegan flan, made with her own version of dairy-free condensed milk, at the vegan grocery Food Fight.
When the shutdown began, however, Espinoza ended up making a few fortuitous connections: Amy Patino, the owner of Olé Olé, rented her a space on East Burnside, and a number of other business owners came through in whatever way they could. “I’ve done everything with basically no money,” Espinoza says. “I’ve been fortunate to meet other women business owners selling off equipment.” By Saturday, Espinoza had everything she needed to start offering a tight menu of takeout items, including two different empanadas, her Cuban made with house-made vegan ham and pickles, two flans, and her croquetas. She took her orders via text.
Down the line, Espinoza isn’t just looking to emulate the flavors of Miami — she wants to recreate the energy, as well. She has big plans to add a colorful mural to the outside of the restaurant, adding a mojito bar inside the space. She wants to start offering coladas of cafe Cubano, a sweet Cuban espresso drink, for people to take to work. She wants to recreate the intimacy, of being able to meet someone and immediately become friends, to sit and drink coffee and gossip. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just an atmosphere,” she says. “It’s fun and loud and kind of obnoxious. That’s what I want.” For now, however, she’s sticking to takeout — but today, she’s looking forward to the future.
“When you have to become self-sufficient, financially responsible for your mother and son — it’s just kind of crazy,” she says. “It’s a force of necessity and sheer will that I’m here.”
Miami Nice is now open at 2137 East Burnside, Unit C.
• Miami Nice [Official]