You probably know Wasabi Juan’s in Birmingham for its famous sushi burritos. How did this local restaurant come to tempt our palates with inventive combinations of global flavors? I sat down with owners Barby and Luis Toro to find out. Here is the story of their Hispanic heritage and their American dream come true.
This two-part series takes us to Cuba and Miami, then Colombia and New York. And it all leads to Wasabi Juan’s and the Toros being the biggest fans of Alabama I’ve ever met.
Part 1: Barby’s Story
Jumping The Fence In Cuba
Born in 1970, Barby spent her first ten years in Cuba. She lived with her mom and dad and had two brothers. She swam and did gymnastics. From a child’s perspective, it was a good life, but scarcity under the communist regime was a daily hardship.
“In Cuba, they gave you a little notebook. They told you what’s allowed for you to buy on a weekly basis and a monthly basis. You were probably allowed two eggs a week—two eggs!” Barby said, holding up her hands to make two egg-shaped circles. “When you made something, you’d have to split it in half and save some for later.”
Then on April 4, 1980, her family’s situation changed suddenly. A group of Cubans who disapproved of the government forced their way into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. The ambassador, Ernesto Pinto Bazurco Rittler, granted them, and anyone else who wanted it, diplomatic protection. Thousands of Cubans flooded the Peruvian embassy. Barby’s family was among them.
“My dad knew it was going to get really bad. He wanted me to have a chance for a future. He told my mom, ‘This is happening. We have to go in,’” Barby said. “My uncle, my aunt, my cousin, my grandpa, my dad, my mom and myself. We all jumped the fence.”
The Mariel Boatlift
Over the next week, the refugees waited in the crowded Peruvian embassy while the ambassador brokered a deal with Fidel Castro. Eventually, they were given papers that allowed them to return home until they could leave the country.
“It was worse at home,” said Barby. “They cut off our electricity. There were rallies. They were saying, ‘You die. You’re scum.’ That’s just how communists are. You’re either with the government or you’re not wanted.”
When all was said and done, the number of Cuban refugees—those who wanted to leave and those who were forced—swelled to 125,000. Leaving Cuba via Port of Mariel, the mass emigration became known as the Mariel boatlift.
“People who leave their country, a lot of times they risk their lives,” Barby said. “We came in a boat, and there were more people in that boat than should have been. A lot of people died on the way over here that my parents saw—people who were in ships and boats asking for help, but you couldn’t bring them in your boat because you were already full. It was rough.”
Land Of Plenty
Several countries, including the United States, opened their doors to the Mariel boatlift refugees. Barby’s family landed in Miami, where they were brought to a camp normally used to house seasonal sugarcane workers. For 10-year-old Barby, it was like stepping into the land of plenty.
There were trailers full of clothes, shoes, toys and other goods donated by Americans for the refugees. Barby, who had never seen such abundance, filled a huge bag with toys and dragged it with her everywhere she went so no one could take them away.
“We didn’t struggle because of how this country is and people are taught to give,” Barby said.
She remembers vividly seeing a Pepsi machine for the first time and members of the military always buying them sodas. (Sidebar: if you are in the military and come to Wasabi Juan’s, expect to be “loved on” by the Toros.)
At meals, they found their trays filled with a half a chicken.
“My mom wanted to save it. Thinking for survival in Cuba, you’re always saving so you can feed your family later. Coming from that, you definitely couldn’t eat half a chicken. Your stomach wasn’t large enough.”
Plaintains Every Day
Once the family settled in Miami, they had to adapt to their new home.
“Just learning the system, learning about college and retirement. My dad used to be an A/C mechanic in Cuba, and here he was a janitor at a Marriott. There’s nothing wrong with that. You need to start where you need to start and work your way up,” Barby said. “My dad was able to buy a house eventually.”
Barby’s new school in Miami offered an English as a second language program, but she credits TV for helping her learn English in six months. “And all of a sudden I understood everything everyone was talking about, and I knew what to say,” she said.
The family’s Hispanic heritage continued in the kitchen. Barby’s parents are both incredible cooks, and there was always something delicious cooking—a pot of beans, yellow rice and chicken, and always, always fried plantains.
“In Cuba, my dad would say, ‘Once I make it to the United States, I’m going to have sweet plantains every day,'” Barby said. “And we had fried sweet plantains every day, for over 10 years. Every day! Because he could and because it was available.”
Finally Home In Alabama
Barby and Luis met and married in Miami and had a daughter, Jessica. Business brought the family, including Barby’s parents, to Birmingham in 2008.
“I didn’t know what to expect because I never left Miami. I thought I was going to miss it, and I was happy I was close to what I thought was home at the time,” Barby said. “But after I got here, I never missed it. We just fell in love with Alabama, we really did. Two months after we were here, we didn’t ever want to go back.”
It was here in Alabama where Barby, the once 10-year-old Cuban refugee, realized how American she was.
In Miami, with high Hispanic and Cuban populations, she went with the flow and was content with her U.S. resident status. She never pursued citizenship. That changed when she moved here.
“Once I got here (to Alabama), I was able to just integrate. I just loved it here,” Barby said. “Then I got hungry, and I said wait a minute, I need to make this happen. I really want to be able to vote. So we started the process and were so blessed.”
She took her citizenship test in Atlanta, but got to take her oath right here at the downtown Birmingham courthouse.
“When it was time for me to take my oath, I was able to take it here, at home,” Barby said. “We had a huge party and a big breakfast, which I enjoyed greatly and it’s been a blessing ever since. I just love it here. We’re big Alabama fans—state fans.”
Cuban Influence On Wasabi Juan’s Menu
In general, Wasabi Juan’s, which the Toros founded in 2014, embraces flavors from across the world, and that includes Cuba. In the wintertime, you can enjoy black beans, made from Barby’s dad’s recipe, and Barby’s chicken soup, with lots of chicken. Plus, a classic menu item, the South Beach Sushi Burrito, will return to the menu soon.
“That one has steak, cream cheese, green peppers, red peppers and sweet plantains. The sweet plaintains—that’s just a bit of that Cuban Caribbean flavor,” Barby said.
What About Thanksgiving?
Glad you asked. Thanksgiving at the Toro home in Trussville is a big party with dual Cuban and American menus. And for you sweet potato casserole fans out there, Barby puts marshmallows and pecans on top of hers.
Find Wasabi Juan’s
- 4120 3rd Avenue South, Avondale, Alabama 35222
- 5037 Hwy 280 Birmingham, Alabama 35242 (To get to the Highway 280 Wasabi Juan’s, enter Inverness Heights Market via Cahaba Beach Road, or use the entrance off 280 a little further east.)
- Coming soon to the The Battery, 2201 2nd Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama 35233
- Online at wasabijuan.com
Stay tuned with Bham Now for “Celebrating Hispanic heritage with Barby and Luis Toro of Wasabi Juan’s, part 2.” Next up, Luis’ story.