Before Julio Ortiz became a Woodinville business owner, he was imprisoned, kidnapped and tortured throughout various attempts to escape Cuba in search for the American dream.
Ortiz, owner of Twisted Cuban Café & Bar, recently self-published a book called “Escape from Cuba: In Search of the American Dream.”
As a restaurateur, he utilizes his heritage to create authentic cuisine from his mother’s recipes. He has owned the café, previously known as the Twisted Sandwich, for about 12 years now.
“It’s a restaurant where the atmosphere is family,” he said. “The atmosphere is really what people are looking to pay.”
Ortiz originally bought the sandwich shop in 2009 to use as a commercial kitchen to expand on his production of “pastitas,” which are like potato chips, but made out of pasta. He had planned to use the café for a chip factory and packaging area, however, he decided to keep the sandwich shop after learning it had a large number of followers in the community.
“Obviously, it’s a very busy type of business, so I put the pasta business on hold and dedicated my time to the job,” he said.
At one point, Ortiz said, he went back to Cuba to visit his mother because she was sick. She ended up giving him all of her recipes.
“She said I was going to need to cook one day,” he said. “And she was absolutely right.”
Ortiz continued to serve the same original sandwich menu for a few years before people started requesting Cuban food, so he introduced a Cuban sandwich and other creations. He said it became the most popular menu item, further persuading him to transform the whole restaurant into Cuban cuisine. He changed the name of the restaurant to Twisted Cuban Café about five years ago, he added.
He said the “pastitas” business is still on hold since he’s been so busy with the restaurant. Ortiz also sells his own brand of premium hand-rolled cigars and has them available at the restaurant.
His new book details his memories of growing up in communist Cuba and how he escaped to America at 24 years old.
“This is 100% my autobiography,” Ortiz said. “It’s a lot of little details. I mean it's unbelievable, the things that are written in there.”
He said the book touches on his childhood, such as growing up as the youngest of six siblings and living with eight people in a single room. Ortiz went to school in Cuba and got his education to become a registered nurse even though he was starving, he noted.
Ortiz said he tried to leave Cuba illegally on a raft three separate times, although he was caught and sent to jail each time. After that, he added, he found the opportunity to marry a Colombian woman to get out of Cuba on a visa.
He stayed in Colombia for six months and worked as a nurse. Ortiz said he found the name of a dead person and acquired that passport to become Colombian illegally. Then, he found a connection to go to the United States from Ecuador.
“I was living in Bogotá, and I had to go all the way down to the border of Colombia and Ecuador,” he said. “That was where I was kidnapped.”
When trying to cross the border, Ortiz was caught and identified as a Cuban even though he was traveling with a Colombian passport. He said they accused him of being an infiltrator.
By then, he added, it had been a couple of years since the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar died. As a result, Cuban political leader Fidel Castro was supporting the Colombian government’s effort to rid the countries of drug operations.
“They thought I was an undercover agent or something like that,” he said. “That's the reason why I got tortured — to find out what I knew about it.”
After he was released, Ortiz said he managed to get a flight from Ecuador to Italy, which happened to have a layover in Miami, Fla. Upon landing, he was immediately sent to jail for investigation and ended up staying there for a month.
Once he was able to leave jail, he went straight to New York to find work. Ortiz said he already had a job within a matter of hours. He served at several restaurants in New York City, in addition to a couple five-star hotel restaurants. This is how he learned about the culinary arts, he said.
Ortiz said he went to school in New Jersey to study real estate with intentions to become a “fixer upper guy” and remodel houses. After that, he studied business administration in New York, where one of his professors advised him to write a book about his life.
He moved to the area when his wife landed a new job, and here, he said, he “absolutely” found the American dream.
His book may be found on Amazon and at Twisted Cuban Café & Bar, located at 12631 NE Woodinville Dr.