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Meet Monica Leon of Caja Caliente in Midtown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Monica Leon.

Monica, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was born and raised in Miami, FL. I later went on to study public relations in Gainesville, FL. After graduating, I decided to move to NYC, where I started my food blog, “MikaBites”. Surrounded by so many different cultures and such a large food scene in NYC, it inspired me to go back to my roots. My family has been in the restaurant business since the early 70’s. My grandfather and family left Cuba in the late 60’s and moved to Spain, where my grandfather opened a chain of Cuban restaurants ran by him and our family which is the recipes that inspired my concept for Caja Caliente today. I always knew what I really loved to do was cooking, it’s in my blood. One day, I had a crazy idea to open a food truck. I told my cousin and my mom and they jumped on board with me and my crazy idea, a month later we opened on the corner of 26th st. and Ne 2nd ave.

We started with no name, about 5 menu items and no idea what we were doing as we had never worked in a food truck before. All I knew was that I had an obsession with tacos & that my grandfather’s lechon that he cooked every Christmas Eve was a hit. So, what did I do? I combined the two. And there you have it, the lechon taco was born! aka the “the original Cuban taco”. We did no PR or marketing, we wanted it to be organic. Little by little, the word got out of the little hot box right by the gas station with the crazy Cuban mom throwing down like it was your grandmother’s kitchen. We created our following and eventually became La Caja Caliente, a.k.a. The hot box for many locals.

After the demand started growing, we needed a bigger space which led us to where we are today. It was an abandoned dirty parking lot, and yet again, I had another crazy idea. “Let’s turn this into mom’s backyard” where we would all get together and have big family parties and throw down the whole roasted pork and dance the night away. And we did just that! We collected old sofas and coffee tables from friends and family members and created our own little backyard in the middle of Edgewater. We opened our doors there February 24th of 2017.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Any business owner knows its never a smooth road. You have your good days and your bad days. It’s a roller coaster of obstacles and challenges every day but it makes it all worth it in the end. How boring would it be if everything was perfect ALL the time. A little challenge can only make us stronger and help us grow and learn from it.

Our number one challenge would have to be the fact that we are an outdoor establishment. It’s not easy, to say the least, whether it be the heat, rain or the threat of a hurricane. Last year we had the challenge of hurricane Irma. We had to pack absolutely everything up, I’ll never forget the day I saw that lot empty after all the hard work we put in there. Brick by brick, plant by plant, with our own hands. It was devastating.

With my mom’s persistence and encouragement, we came back stronger than ever the day after the hurricane. We were the first place open on the avenue serving up hot meals to many locals that didn’t have electricity for days after we got hit. I’ll never forget that day and the reactions from all the locals.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Caja Caliente – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Caja Caliente is our home, we’ve created a family there and were known for that. When you go to Caja, there’s just that feeling that you feel that you’re at your grandmother’s house. My mom is usually sitting on her recliner chair at the entrance saying hi to all the familiar faces and asking 99 questions about how are you are and bugging you to finish your plate if she sees one crumb on your plate. I think that laid back, family ambiance is what sets us apart from the rest.

What makes me the proudest of my company is that we’ve been able to take an idea my grandfather had years ago and keep that idea and tradition alive and be able to create a successful business of it. It keeps us together no matter what.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I am currently working on our next location which will be a brick and mortar in Coral Gables located at 808 Ponce de Leon. We are in the process of building out and are expecting to open it in mid-fall of this year. It will be the same menu but with many more options and daily specials. We are also very excited to announce that we will be doing Saturday & Sunday brunches with bottomless drink options with some familiar faces and local chefs. The brunch menu will also be Cuban inspired dishes, sticking to our roots once again!

I’m excited about the future. I don’t want to overexpand too quickly which is usually the common mistake in our industry. I want to stay true to my corporate identity and what makes us who we are. And that is family, the foundation of Caja Caliente.

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Getting in touch: VoyageMIA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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