Story by Leah Shapiro | Photos by Paul M. Howey
A dream come true for Rafael Lopez and Martha Alejo and their family, Abeja’s House Café opened its doors for business in South Asheville last September. The story of the restaurant’s origins, however, begins much earlier.
In 1998, Rafael relocated to Asheville from his home in Puebla, Mexico, and was hired as dishwasher at Tripps Restaurant. A couple years later, his wife Martha also made the move and joined the Tripps’ staff. Within five years at Tripps, Rafael was promoted from dishwasher to fry cook, grill cook, and finally kitchen manager. He became skilled at creating classic American cuisine.
“I was getting so passionate about cooking and learning different techniques,” says Rafael. He adds that he spoke very little English at first, but by the end of his 11-year stint at Tripps, he’d become much more fluent. “The most important thing for me was understanding all of the kitchen techniques, reading recipes, and following all of the cooking procedures.” After Tripps, Rafael worked at Sunny Point Café for about five years, and then at Green Sage for about a year before opening Abeja’s.
In addition to evening shifts at the restaurant, Rafael also had a second job in a factory. On a typical day, he would work at the factory from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., then have a one-hour break before his restaurant shift would begin. “I’d stay until close at 11:30 p.m. or midnight, depending on how busy it was… I was working 80 to 90 hours every week for the last 14 years.”
While Rafael was gaining skills in cooking, Martha was becoming more involved in baking. “When I was little, my mother always made desserts,” she says. “Now it’s my passion. I look through recipes and combine two or three to make one.” After Tripps, Martha worked at both Bistro 1896 and Trillium Bistro for several years before Sunny Point Café and Green Sage. At Sunny Point, she was responsible for all the baking, creating biscuits and desserts from scratch, and perfecting vegan and gluten-free recipes.
Despite the long hours and raising their two sons, Rafael and Martha have always been determined to stay in the restaurant industry. Winter or summer, rain or shine, 365 days a year, there would always be restaurant jobs, says Rafael.
Rafael and Martha frequently host cookouts at their home in Asheville, and Martha has always baked birthday cakes for friends’ children. For years, friends and family asked when they were going to start their own restaurant. “Two years ago, we started thinking about it and planning,” says Rafael. “It’s a small place, but it’s all we need.” Although “abeja” translates to “honeybee,” the restaurant is named after the family’s beloved 140-pound pet pig, Abeja. Their two teenage sons, Ulises and Rafael, Jr., help out in the café. Janet Alejo runs the front of house and helps Rafael manage the kitchen.
Open for breakfast and lunch, Abeja’s serves Latin fusion cuisine with a few other favorite items in the mix. “It’s a compilation. We know what people love, especially for those who are gluten sensitive, and a lot of people in Asheville are vegan. So we are taking care of these people. We have a little taste of everything for everybody,” says Rafael. In addition to several styles of burgers, there are also pancakes, breakfast tacos, New Orleans style shrimp and grits, and sandwiches, such as the Portobello veggie and hummus wrap. They source from Hickory Nut Gap Farms.
Prepared in the authentic Mexican tradition, chilaquiles are a popular dish, and include corn tortilla chips marinated in a red or green salsa with two eggs and refried black beans. “We are trying to rescue our traditions,” says Rafael. The salsa takes two to three hours to prepare. “It’s a long process, but you can taste the flavor.”
You’ll also find Martha’s homemade desserts, such as tres leches cake and gluten-free pecan cheesecake.
“We want to give back to Asheville what it gave to us,” says Rafael. “This is what we’ve been learning. We want to share our passion for food. Give the people a taste of everything.”
Abeja’s House Café is located at 1550 Hendersonville Road, Suite 116, in South Asheville. For more information, visit abejashousecafe.com or call 828.505.3696.