Among the black-and-white portraits of Latino community leaders hanging in Miami airport, one figure stands out as particularly intriguing: alongside household names like popstar Ricky Martin and television presenter “Don Francisco” (aka Mario Kreutzberger), is the portrait of one Ingrid Isabel Encina, restaurateur.
But once acquainted with Encina’s story, it’s no surprise that this Chilean expat of humble origins was included in the “100 Latinos of Miami” series, which pays tribute to the prime movers and shakers of a U.S. city in which Latin Americans are the most populous ethnic group and Spanish the most spoken language.
Ingrid Isabel Lobos Soto first came to Miami 24 years ago, as a 19-year-old newlywed on honeymoon with her husband Pierre Encina.
Recently graduated with a diploma as a commercial secretary, Encina saved for a year but still had to borrow money from an aunt to afford the trip. With hardly a cent between them, the pair decided to stay in Miami, doing whatever odd jobs they could find to meet bills and start paying back Encina’s aunt.
For the next few years she cleaned buildings during the day and took English lessons at night – when suddenly her life changed direction.
“I began to study English, and one day the teacher told me that she had tried Chilean empanadas and wondered if I could bring some in,” Encina told El Mercurio.
Always fond of cooking, she begin taking in the home-made meat pastries and sharing them with her teacher and fellow classmates.
“After I saw that people there liked empanadas. . . I made business cards, and from there I began to become famous,” she said. “That’s how this project began, it wasn’t something that was meant to be, but something that cropped up along the road.”
As word of mouth spread, first among the Chilean community and then within the broader Hispanic community, she converted her humble home into a Chilean bakery.
The operation quickly outgrew her house, and in 1995 she opened her own restaurant, “Sabores Chilenos.” At first it was a true Chilean picada: in place of tables and seats, it a had bar with stools; there was no menu, just empanadas and sweet Chilean pastries.
Seventeen years on, “Sabores Chilenos” is not only an iconic restaurant in Miami, but a mini-market of all things Chilean – Condorito comic books, dried peaches for making mote con huesillo, Chilean wines, chocolates, sodas… even Alexis Sánchez jerseys.
And aside from being a business, it has become the hub of Chile’s expat community in Miami – the place to celebrate Chilean Independence Day, dance the cueca, or enjoy a tasty empanada and a reverie of home.