Last week in part 1, Barby Toro shared her story of emigration from Cuba. Now, in part 2, Luis Toro tells us about his Colombian heritage. And it all leads to Wasabi Juan’s, home of the sushi burrito, in Birmingham.
Part 2: Luis’ Story And Beyond
A Snowy Day In New York
Wasabi Juan’s customers ask Luis all the time where he’s from. He gets a kick out of it. The answer? America.
Luis’ Hispanic heritage is the story of his Colombian parents. They both immigrated to New York City in the 1970s, but they didn’t know each other. He was from the inner part of the country, and she was from the coast.
In Colombia, they probably never would have met. In New York, friends introduced them. They got married and had Luis. But weather would soon change the family’s course.
“One day it snowed so much, they couldn’t find their car,” Luis said. “They even reported it stolen. After a few days went by, the snow melted. The car was in front of the apartment right where they parked it last.”
This event precipitated a move south for warmer weather and to be closer to home. They chose Miami—where Luis would grow up and meet his future wife, Barby, a U.S. resident who emigrated from Cuba when she was 10.
Years later, Luis and Barby Toro would move their family to Birmingham. They would explore the city via their favorite date-night food, sushi. Eventually, they would open their own sushi place with a fusion twist, Wasabi Juan’s.
If two strangers had not journeyed from Colombia to New York and met… If the snow had not been quite so hard that day, would we have Wasabi Juan’s in Birmingham today? Let’s not think of such things.
American As PB&J
Listening to the Toros talk about growing up as first- and second-generation Hispanic Americans gave me insight into one aspect of Wasabi Juan’s menu.
Have you noticed that, along with the fusion of global flavors and super fresh ingredients, the menu at Wasabi Juan’s does something else? It celebrates childhood comfort foods, like Doritos, Rice Krispies and Nutella.
When young Luis spent his first summer in Colombia with his grandmother, he was in for a bit of culture shock. American staples like peanut butter and jelly, hamburgers, cereal and fresh milk (not powdered) were not commonplace in his family’s home country.
He liked Colombian food, usually a delicious stew, but he missed his favorites. When he returned to Colombia the next summer, he was prepared. He told his mom he needed his suitcase packed with peanut butter, jelly and Nestlé Quik.
Barby, for her part, remembers discovering American flavors as her family settled into Miami in 1980, leaving behind the scarcity they knew in communist Cuba.
“The food was so different. The butter was different. The milk was different. But it was there,” Barby said. “I remember when I tasted Fritos for the first time. I would eat a bag. It was a different taste, and it was so good.”
Wasabi Juan’s, beyond the sushi burrito fusion, is about foods the Toros love. It makes perfect sense Doritos are an ingredient alongside traditional sushi ingredients and cooked chicken, steak and shrimp fillings, too.
The Story Continues
How do the Toros continue their Hispanic heritage in Alabama?
Food is one way. Barby and her parents, who also live in Birmingham, all cook traditional Cuban dishes at home. (See part 1 to learn what Cuban flavors you can find at Wasabi Juan’s, especially in the wintertime.) Barby also once asked her dad, when he was flying through Miami, “Can you bring me a Cuban sandwich and some guava pastries, because I really want some of that right now.”
Church and community is another. When the family moved here from Miami, they began attending a Spanish-language Saturday service at Church of the Highlands and became involved in community service. Though they now attend a campus of the church that’s closer to their Trussville home, the Toros keep strong ties with their friends at the Hispanic campus.
Some ways are more subtle. Barby has lived in the U.S. since she was 10 and feels 100 percent American, but…
“I am so loud sometimes, embarrassingly loud. And if I am with other Cubans, you think something is about to go down. And we’re just talking,” Barby said.
However, the biggest way the Toros continue their Hispanic heritage is a little counterintuitive. They are both big proponents of adapting to American culture and working hard to progressively work your way up. But this, too, is honoring their family heritage. It’s the reason their parents left their home countries. I’ll leave you with one final example.
Barby’s father decided to leave Cuba so many years ago because he wanted a better future for her. Now he builds tables with his granddaughter in the family’s garage in Trussville. And those tables? They’re for the business his daughter and son-in-law founded in Birmingham, Wasabi Juan’s.
Thank you to Barby and Luis Toro of Wasabi Juan’s for collaborating with Bham Now on this two-part series to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
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