Imagine this: You’re sitting in a garden patio in the Sunnyslope suburb of Greater Phoenix. You can hear birds chirping in trees that provide a welcomed shade in Arizona’s notorious Valley of the Sun. You smile to yourself. This is not the region’s traditional cactus garden; it’s an unexpected oasis. You sip your yerba mate from a leather covered gourd and occasionally pour a little more hot water from your thermos so you can sip – and smile – some more. You’re at peace. Life is good.
I really had that experience. I was in Phoenix, surfing the net looking for a good place to have lunch, when “quite by accident” I found a place on the visitphoenix.com website described as a “boutique South-American themed cafe.”
“Try yerba mate,” the web listing went on to say “the national drink of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.” That did it. I was on my way.
Bomberos, which means firemen in Spanish, is the perfect name chosen by Oscar and Kristi Mastrantuono for their offbeat establishment. It occupies a former fire station in the Sunnyslope neighborhood a few miles outside of Phoenix proper.
From the outside, Bomberos Cafe and Wine Bar doesn’t offer any clues about the surprises inside. Oscar’s signature “fire-engine red” motor scooter parked out front being the single exception.
We chose a table in the outdoor patio behind the cafe. As we were being seated, my wife Patti ordered a cup of brewed mate and I ordered the traditional service. The waitress eyed me with a little suspicion, probably wondering if I knew what traditional service really meant. But she was polite and didn’t make any patronizing remarks.
A few minutes later Oscar Mastrantuono, the owner himself, delivered a mate gourd, bombilla and thermos to our table. On this particular day he was serving Canarias brand yerba mate, a favorite in Uruguay. He was probably as interested in seeing who was ordering his prized offering as I was in seeing who prepared it. We immediately struck up a conversation about mate and Oscar’s background.
Oscar is serious about introducing the culture and traditions of South America to the United States. He likes bringing out the mate paraphernalia because of the attention it attracts. “It piques people’s curiosity” he says. They ask: “What’s that weird kinda thing?” Then, he tells them “all about the traditions, the antioxidants, the social gathering, sharing the same straw and taking time to relax and enjoy it.”
“Here in the States,” he says, “when you drink coffee, you drink it in ten minutes and you’re done, tops fifteen minutes. This (mate) is two hours, maybe an hour and a half. It’s like a fine bottle of wine, but the great thing (about mate) is you can drink it all day long.”
Oscar was born in Uruguay and moved to New York when he was a little kid of about five years old. Then he moved back to Uruguay when he was ten and back again to the States years later. In Uruguay, he lived in Montevideo, the capital, and nearby Carrasco.
As a youngster, Oscar worked in his father’s grocery store, but his career path eventually took a different direction: through the hospitality industry. He learned to be a “professional” at hotel guest services from the ground up: first, as a valet who parked cars; then a bellman; then guest services manager; and finally sales manager. He wanted to learn it all, even though they didn’t take him seriously when he applied for a housekeeping position.
The “concept” of Bomberos is far more impressive than a first glance lets on. They open at 7:00 am for morning coffee – or yerba mate for the enlightened – and a breakfast of omelets, breakfast wraps, yogurt, granola and pastries. Then at midday they serve a light lunch with a variety of salads, panini sandwiches, bruschetta, cheeses, olives, meats and a variety of desserts.
The featured South American wines and Latin American beers complement the fare all day, but especially after work and into the night. During the week they close at midnight and at 1:00 am on Friday and Saturday.
Add to this: WiFi, a big screen TV tuned to South American soccer games in the cafe dining room and weekend entertainment that features live musical talent from South America. All of the cultural amenities contributed to a successful first year of operation. If you missed the point here, Bomberos has something to attract people every hour of the day!
“The reason why I did this,” Oscar says, “is because, obviously, I am proud of being from South America and a Uruguayan. When people visit from Argentina or Brazil or Uruguay or Venezuela or anywhere in South America, they feel like they’re at home. It brings them all together.” I noticed that patrons from the U.S. like Bomberos too.
Oscar’s parents now own a grocery store in New York; his brother and sister own their own businesses and he has longed to own his own business too. Bomberos satisfies this longing. “I had to try it” he said.
I asked how he felt about the time and financial commitment he made to open his dream business – not to mention the risks and challenges involved. He chuckled because apparently this is a common question. His quick answer is: “My wife has a real job.”