Atlanta Orders In: Lawrenceville’s D’Floridian a story of Cuban food, and perseverance

The spicy oxtails are a delicious choice at D’Floridian in Lawrenceville; the dish comes with rice and plantains. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The spicy oxtails are a delicious choice at D’Floridian in Lawrenceville; the dish comes with rice and plantains. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

If you ask him, Jaime Ochoa will tell you his life story — recalling names and dates, triumphs and tribulations — in exacting detail. His is a classic immigrant success story, a tale of hard work and tenacity, mixed with a bit of tequila and straight-up comedy.

Ochoa, 28, came to the U.S. from his native Guatemala when he was 18, joining his mother in Atlanta and leaving a pregnant girlfriend (now his wife) behind. A recent high school graduate, he was “hungry to work,” but his mother told him he needed to go back to school, so he could learn English and a new culture. “I was confused,” Ochoa said. “I was like, wow, if I finished high school, why I got to go to high school again?”

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D’Floridian in downtown Lawrenceville serves classic Cuban food, including Cuban sandwiches, black beans and rice. Courtesy of Gabriel Trujillo
D’Floridian in downtown Lawrenceville serves classic Cuban food, including Cuban sandwiches, black beans and rice. Courtesy of Gabriel Trujillo

Credit: Gabriel Trujillo

Credit: Gabriel Trujillo

Nonetheless, he enrolled at Norcross High School, immersed himself in his English classes, and emerged with an easygoing charm that made him a natural at his first job, at a Mexican restaurant, where he quickly progressed from dishwasher to server to bartender. He learned to make cocktails out of necessity: The head bartender often was drunk; Ochoa didn’t want to keep his customers waiting.

Fast-forward to early 2020.

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Jaime Ochoa, 28, is one of the three owners of D’Floridian, which opened in May in downtown Lawrenceville. Courtesy of Marcelo de la Cruz
Jaime Ochoa, 28, is one of the three owners of D’Floridian, which opened in May in downtown Lawrenceville. Courtesy of Marcelo de la Cruz

Credit: Marcelo de la Cruz

Credit: Marcelo de la Cruz

After a decade of experience in Mexican restaurants (Zapata Tacos and Tequila Bar and Oaxaca Tacos and Tequila Bar, both in Norcross; and Agavero Cantina West Midtown), Ochoa was enraptured with Mexican food and drink, and ready to open his own place. He and his two partners — Ricardo Mauricio and Yonis Martinez — found the perfect spot in downtown Lawrenceville, across from the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse. They signed a lease and did an extensive renovation, turning the dark and drab former Olivia’s Mediterranean Taverna into a sparkling white room with tropical flair.

Then came the snag that almost broke the deal: The landlord told the owners they couldn’t create a Mexican restaurant, because there already was one on the same block. He owns that property, too, and his tenants would not be amused. “When he told me that, I freaked out. I was like, wow, what we do now?” Ochoa recalled. “He’s like, I’m sorry, that’s your problem.”

The ropa vieja bowl is part of D’Floridian’s brunch menu. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The ropa vieja bowl is part of D’Floridian’s brunch menu. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

So, the partners switched to Cuban, a cuisine that Ochoa claims to love more than Mexican. They brought in Maria del Carmen Noguera, an old-school cook who grew up in Guantanamo, but now lives in Miami. She developed recipes for ropa vieja, lechon asado, empanizado, vaca frita and other Cuban classics. Ochoa traveled to Miami numerous times to try the different Cuban restaurants.

The owners unveiled D’Floridian in early May.

Two good options from D’Floridian are the spicy oxtails (with rice and plantains) and roasted pork loin (with rice and salad). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Two good options from D’Floridian are the spicy oxtails (with rice and plantains) and roasted pork loin (with rice and salad). Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

From the get-go, the restaurant was a hit. It has gone from one person in the kitchen to seven, with a total of 25 employees. Ochoa’s wife, Lorena Cifuentes, is now the head chef, having soaked up the knowledge of Noguera and risen to the challenge of crisis management.

After a great first month of business, Ochoa got the alarming news that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire staff was tested; he was the only other team member to get a positive result. Cifuentes and Mauricio took over; Ochoa went into quarantine for three weeks, but never had symptoms. The restaurant closed for a week, and underwent a deep cleaning.

At D’Floridian, the owners want you to feel like you’re on a tropical vacation when you enter the door. Cocktails are part of that experience. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
At D’Floridian, the owners want you to feel like you’re on a tropical vacation when you enter the door. Cocktails are part of that experience. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“I was so scared,” Ochoa said — not just about health matters, but also about what the community would think about a popular restaurant suddenly gone dark.

Looking back, it was just another hurdle in what this father of two considers an adventure. And, it’s not over: He’s already making plans for a Mexican mezcaleria in downtown Lawrenceville.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

D’Floridian, which opened in May in downtown Lawrenceville, was a success from the start. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
D’Floridian, which opened in May in downtown Lawrenceville, was a success from the start. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

D’FLORIDIAN CUBAN CUISINE & BAR

Menu: Cuban and tapas; substantive bar program (100-plus rums)

Alcohol: yes; takeout drinks available for those who want to enjoy downtown Lawrenceville’s open-container ordinance

What I ordered: Cuban sandwich, black bean soup, papa rellena, ropa vieja bowl, spicy oxtail, pork loin, tres leches cake, pastelito de guayaba. The savory dishes were generally quite good; portions were generous, and the prices reasonable. The pork loin had an amazing depth of flavor, with delightful citrus notes from the mojo marinade. I recommend it, as well as the spicy oxtail, the Cuban, the ropa bowl and the papa rellena (a fried mashed potato ball stuffed with picadillo). I do not recommend the pastries.

Service options: dine-in and takeout (order by phone or in person); no delivery

Outdoor dining: yes

Mask policy: yes, for employees; requested for guests, but not strictly enforced

Address, phone: 125 W. Crogan St., Lawrenceville; 770-299-1273

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays

Website: dfloridian.com

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