On a recent trip to Louisville, I found myself out on the east side of the city looking for a dealer at an address near the corner of Taylorsville Road and Hurstbourne Parkway. It turned out the dealer not only wasn't there any longer, but they had completely gone out of business. I went around the back side of the shopping complex trying to find my way out of the place and I happened to take a right turn that took me past a canopy awning that said Mussel & Burger Bar. Hey, I like mussels and I like burgers! It looked like a classy place. It was just before noon and I thought I'd go in and check the place out.
I'm glad I did because it turns out the Mussel & Burger Bar is a popular place in the Louisville area. And the people behind the place is a former Cuban refugee, his wife and his cousin.
Fernando Martinez grew up in Cuba learning how to prepare and cook traditional Cuban foods - pork, chicken, plantains, black beans and rice - from his mother and his grandmother. His grandmother was originally from Spain and she taught him the art of tapas - small plates of various foods.
Martinez found that he loved to cook. He would make pizzas and sandwiches and go to the airport in Havana and sell them to people coming and going on flights. Since private enterprise was illegal in Cuba, Martinez found himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion.
But Martinez's food garnered him a following of people, many of whom would end up coming to his house to have him make food for them. He started to buy pigs in the country - because they were cheaper to buy there than from a city butcher - and he would cure ham and make pork dishes from the pigs he'd buy. He would make his own bread and many of the meals he made for people were made from scratch.
Fernando Martinez and his mother, Yolanda, decided to start their own restaurant located in their house. Word got out among tourists that this teenaged boy and his mother made some of the best food on the island. However, Cuban authorities found out about the restaurant and without the proper licensing they shut down the Martinez's little business.
Determined to be able to live their own lives, Martinez and his mother made a raft out of inner tubes, wood and rope and set out across the Straits of Florida to the United States in 1995. They were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard short of their goal and were sent to a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. In 1996, Fernando and Yolanda Martinez legally made their way to San Diego and eventually ended up in Louisville meeting up with his cousin Yaniel Martinez.
Fernando's first job was working in a Mexican restaurant where he met another Cuban refugee, Marcos Lorenzo. One evening Fernando went to a salsa nightclub and met a young Venezuelan woman by the name of Christina. It was love at first sight and the two quickly married. Christina shared Fernando's dream of opening a restaurant of their own at some point.
After years of saving, in 1994 Fernando, Marcos and Christina opened Havana Rumba, a small Cuban restaurant using many of the recipes that Fernando, his mother and grandmother used at their home in Cuba. Three years later, the group opened Mojitos Tapas restaurant using many of the Spanish tapas recipes he learned from his grandmother. Wanting to learn more about cuisine than what he'd learned from his mother and grandmother, Fernando Martinez took 10 weeks off from the restaurants over a three year period to study in France at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy.
Even with his mother helping out in the restaurants and with the Martinez's young children at home, Fernando and Christina were working up to 90 hours a week at the restaurants. They were getting burnt out and needed to step away from the restaurants. The Martinez's sold their stake in the two restaurants and took their family to live on an island off the Venezuelan coast. However, after two months of living a laid-back lifestyle Fernando Martinez became annoyed with not having anything to. During school breaks, the family would travel and Fernando would find work in various kitchens in Venezuela, Mexico and Peru - many times work for no pay - to experiment with the art of balancing foods and tastes that he learned while attending Le Cordon Bleu. Even if he was just peeling potatoes or making a broth, he was observing what was going on in those kitchens.
The Martinez family eventually made it back to the U.S. - this time to Miami where Fernando was a sous chef under the acclaimed "Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine", Douglas Rodriguez, where he learned more about the combination of flavors and textures. It was also working under Rodriguez where Fernando learned about the true meaning of balance in the restaurant industry - both in balancing the tastes of the various foods and in balancing his life as a chef with passion.
Feeling now that they were ready to make the plunge back into restaurant ownership, Fernando and Christina moved back to Louisville meeting up once again with his cousin, Yaniel. They started up Guaca Mole, an upscale contemporary Mexican restaurant. But Fernando wasn't going to stop with just one restaurant. Not long after opening Guaca Mole, he came up with the concept of the Mussel & Burger Bar.
The group opened the Mussel & Burger Bar in January of 2013 in the Jeffersontown area of Louisville. Many people thought they were crazy for opening a privately owned restaurant as the area seemed to be a graveyard for small restaurants over the years.
Pictured right - Fernando and Christina Martinez along with Yaniel Martinez. Photo courtesy Louisville Magazine.
There was a space under the Mussel & Burger Bar that sat empty. Fernando turned that into The Place Downstairs - an upscale Cuban/Spanish restaurant. It wasn't long before he turned the space into an upscale Italian restaurant - Cena. However, he closed Cena in the fall of 2015 because of the need for overflow for the highly successful Mussel & Burger Bar upstairs. Fernando showed the skeptics that a non-chain restaurant in "J-town" could actually make it.
Along the way, the Martinez's have been busy. Under their OLE' (which stands for "Oh! Let's Eat!") Restaurant Group banner, they also own and operate El Taco Luchador - an upscale taqueria in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville; as well as Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas in the Westport Village boutique shopping area in Louisville. And in the fall of last year, the group opened a second Mussel & Burger Bar location in downtown Louisville.
As I said, I was sort of driving around a building in a strip mall trying to find my way out onto Taylorsville Road and I saw the awning in front of the place. (see map) Walking into the place, there's a nice bar area. I was asked by the hostess if I wanted to have a seat in the dining room. I looked at the difference between the two and opted for the dining room.
The dining room was sort of neat. It kind of reminded me of an old South dining room with columns and arched alcoves with booths. I took a seat at one of the booths and was given a menu. I was soon greeted by Anthony, my server for the day. Anthony was a raging urban hipster - nice guy, but a little thick on the laid back hip talk. I thought it was kind of funny and he made me smile. He got me a locally brewed IPA while I looked through the menu.
The menu featured a number of burgers, sandwiches, appetizers, and - of course - mussels. The burgers weren't cheap - most of them were $15.50 The appetizer mussels rang in at $11.50 and I thought that may be too much to go along with a burger for just myself.
There were a couple three burgers that caught my eye - the Bacon Breakfast Burger, also known as the B.B.B. featured a burger patty topped with white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, maple syrup glazed pork belly bacon, a fried fresh egg, and finished with a maple syrup aioli. The local burger featured an 8 ounce ground beef patty from Sherwood Acres Farm located about 35 miles east of Louisville, gouda cheese from Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese located in Southern Kentucky, and fresh veggies from a local farm.
I ended up getting the CEO - a gourmet burger patty topped with gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, a truffle aioli, baby arugula, and oven-roasted tomatoes. It came with huge steak truffle fries that were more like quarter wedges of a full potato. If I wanted to get foie gras on the burger I could have for an additional $7.25.
The burger was very thick and placed on a fresh baked bun. From the first bite, I could tell this was an excellent burger. It was flat grilled, cooked to a medium with a hint of pink, and tasted like it had some sort of seasoning on it. It was difficult to distinguish the difference between the cheese, arugula, caramelized onions and oven-roasted tomatoes. But it all went so well together - the balance of flavors and the textures involved are a signature of Fernando Martinez. This was a very, very good gourmet burger.
I think I had - maybe - two bites of the steak truffle fries. They were very good, but it was a lot of starch on the plate. Had I been more hungry I may have had one of the full steak fry spears.
What a great find! I had no idea that Mussel & Burger Bar even existed until I just happened to drive past it. It's sort of tough to find, even if you're looking for the J-town location. But it's worth looking for it. The place is not cheap, but the Martinez family is not apologizing for that. The balance of tastes in the CEO burger that I had was interesting and everything on the burger went well with each bite. Anthony's service - while a little over the top with the urban hipster persona - was friendly, efficient and fun. With now two Mussel & Burger Bars in the Louisville area - and the closing of Cena in the lower portion of the J-town location - more people in the Louisville area can enjoy the great gourmet burgers they serve.