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Chef David Guas prepares a Cubano at Bayou Bakery. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/DC Refined)

How pastelitos and Cubanos are helping one D.C. chef stay close to his roots

Over the past two years, at least three new Cuban restaurants have opened in the D.C. area. However, the rich flavors of Cuban cuisine have been thriving at Chef David Guas' Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington for over seven years. Every Wednesday, the muffalettas and chicory coffee on Bayou Bakery's menu are joined by items like pastelito de guayaba, a flaky, sweet pastry filled with guava and cream cheese, platanos maduros, a sweet fried plantain, traditional black beans and white rice and, of course, the Cubano.

Chef Guas grew up in New Orleans and Bayou Bakery is an homage to his hometown. However, Chef Guas grew up eating traditional Cuban food too - his father, uncle and grandparents immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Louisiana after fleeing from Cuba.

Chef Guas' culinary roots have been tangled since before he was born - his Cuban grandfather left his home in Havana to study law at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he met his wife - Chef Guas' grandmother. The pair got married and moved to Cuba, where they started their family. The family left for Louisiana in the late 1950s and early 1960s as Fidel Castro took power. Chef Guas' grandparents divorced before he was born, but they both exposed Guas to Cuban food from an early age. "My grandfather did whole fish. Everything he had in his pantry was from the Latin grocery stores around New Orleans, everything was in Spanish."

Chef Guas wasn't necessarily crazy about everything his grandparents put on the table, but he still tagged along on his grandfather's culinary adventures as he sought to replicate the flavors of his home country. As a kid, Chef Guas used to pretend he enjoyed Malta, a Latino soft drink, because he knew his grandfather liked it. On trips to visit family in Miami as a kid, Chef Guas would be greeted in the airport by dozens of cousins clutching bags of traditional Cuban pastries to share.

Although Bayou Bakery has been open for eight years, Chef Guas has been whipping up Cuban food every Wednesday for nearly as long. His blue plate specials stick with traditional staples like black beans and white rice, picadillo, a generously flavored beef dish, and yucca con mojo, a starchy root vegetable topped with a citrus-onion-and-garlic sauce that's meant to be drizzled on just about everything. Chef Guas doesn't mind that some Cuban restaurants are updating the classics on their menu, but he says he likes to keep his food more traditional - which happens to fall in line with New Orleans style cooking. "I think the parallels between Cuban cuisine and Louisiana cuisine are what I'm most attracted to. Not just because I grew up having Cuban dishes on my table... I think that a slow, single pot, low and slow, put it on the stove and let it sit for ten hours type of thing is where the flavor builds," he said. "Both Louisiana and Cuban cuisine are very simple; a lot of the time in restaurants want to gussy it up and sometimes it gets messed up. "

Ultimately, Chef Guas' Cuban Wednesdays and the rest of the menu about Bayou Bakery isn't just about the surface level of food; it's a homecoming. "Coming into the restaurant (on a Wednesday) is one of my favorite days to be here because I know I'm going to eat a Cuban sandwich or sneak a pastelito," he said. "It does (connect me to my family); it transcends because it connects you with a memory and it's comforting. It's the same thing with being home sick and not going back to New Orleans very often. I can walk in (to Bayou Bakery) and see the Zapp's potato chips and eat a muffaletta and I'm good for a while. It's these little quick remembrances of a culture that I can connect with through food. It's pretty simple."