Christina Piasecki had three words for her mom, Sonia, after learning that she always wanted to open a cafe — “Let’s do it.”
A hospitality industry vet with 16 years of experience under her belt, Christina was looking to tap into the one side of the business she hadn’t explored before — owning a place of her own — while Sonia, who’d retired from her job at a doctor’s office after working there for 27 years, wanted to pursue another passion: feeding people.
“I found myself retired, and not ready to retire, and I surely didn’t want to go to a job I didn’t want to go to,” Sonia says. “So in order to do what makes me happy, and hopefully makes other people happy, we got together and opened the cafe.”
Their cozy Tampa cafe, Above the Salt, debuted at 428 W. Waters Ave. on Nov. 7, and business has steadily grown through word of mouth. Literally. According to the mother-and-daughter duo, everyone who’s tasted Sonia’s food has come back and brought a friend, who has then referred another friend.
“We really wanted our place to be kind of like you were sitting at our family table,” Christina says. “Everyone that comes in here calls her Mom. They’re walking out the door like, ‘Bye, Mom.’”
That first-name basis falls in line with what the Piaseckis, who were scouting locations in Seminole Heights for a long time before committing to their 1,400-square-foot Lowry Park Central property, say they hope to establish with their cafe, named after a food idiom with medieval origins.
As Sonia puts it, high-ranking members of society, the people who could afford an expensive commodity like salt back in those times, sat above the salt toward the head of the table, as did their distinguished guests.
“That’s why we thought, ‘that’s a great twist,’ because this is our house. These are our tables. You’re our guest, and we invite you to sit at our family table,” she says.
Above the Salt is meant to be a neighborhood gathering place, somewhere comfortable, maybe even familiar, that folks can hang for a couple of hours and not feel rushed. The food speaks to the pair’s Cuban heritage, but — like the cafe’s name — has its own spin to it.
Gouda, guava and roasted pork, ingredients that Mom calls staples in their Cuban family, are featured across the menu in popular items such as the Cuban bowl (white rice, black beans, plantains, mojo pork, lettuce, tomato, onion, mojo aioli) and Royal Grilled Cheese (sharp Gouda, caramelized onion, a touch of guava).
“Grilled cheeses are huge in Seminole Heights. I frequent those places, I eat their grilled cheese sandwiches. I love the fact that they’re pairing cheeses with something sweet. So I told Mom, 'the only way we’re gonna make this Cuban is if we put some guava in there,'” Christina says.
“We didn’t want to go traditional, traditional. We wanted to be a little different. It does have a Cuban flair, though — everything — even our chicken sandwich,” Sonia adds. “But at the same time, we added other things that make it a little more gringo-style.”
Other highlights are a traditional Cubano of ham, salami, roasted pork, Swiss, mayo, mustard and pickle, which is served as a half-order with soup for those who order the Tampa Lunch Special; the stuffed baked French toast (cream cheese, berries, homemade syrup) offered during breakfast; and Noche Buena, a veg-friendly black bean and plantain burger topped with lettuce, tomato and a vinaigrette that’s also been a hit with vegans and vegetarians.
A popular selection that’s not listed on the menu? Sangria, which Christina says is “blowing up the internet.”
Though they can’t reveal the secret ingredient that sets their recipe apart from others, Sonia tells CL they mix together two different red wines, fresh fruit (a medley that changes with every batch), spices and “some sparkling at the end.” One warning, though: A glass tends to lead to a pitcher.
Additional drink options are craft and domestic beer, plus Italian wines.
Thursday-night open mics, meant for all types of creatives, and the After Dark Series, which brings lounge-style live music like duets and trios to the cafe on Saturday evenings, are helping Above the Salt grow organically, too.
Christina, who used to play in Best of the Bay-winning band The Porch Sessions (they’re on hiatus at the moment), says her friends in the local music scene have really come through for After Dark. But the open mic’s turnout ain’t bad, either.
“I’m a musician myself, and I’m pretty hyper-critical, but everybody that has come here has been super talented. It’s one of our best nights,” she says.
After Jan. 1, the cafe will likely roll out theme nights with a DJ on Fridays, including a “soul night” held every third Friday of the month.
Not only does the duo’s Lowry Park Central location allow them to keep their prices down for customers and cater to the sit-down breakfast crowd, the building itself has also given them a sense of pride. Before opening their doors, Sonia and Christina worked on the look of the space (which was vacant for six years or so) themselves, pulling off everything from the painting and woodwork to the floors and tables.
“We’ve always been close, but it’s like we’re one now,” Sonia says.
The best compliment they’ve received from a distinguished guest so far: “You know what? It’s hard to leave.”
Above the Salt Cafe, which welcomes call-ahead phone orders, operates 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the cafe reopens from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.