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    Eat & Swig

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    It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Cafe Aroma on Brownsboro Road, and Maria Hernandez’s whole family is here.

    Toddler Azaeneth is perched on Hernandez’s hip, licking an ice cream cone filled with yogurt the same color as her bubblegum-pink pants and shirt. Behind them, Hernandez’s partner, Alem Gomez, is in the tiny kitchen preparing food on a silver metal surface, spices lined up on a shelf just at his eyeline: adobo, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon. Nine-year-old Allison is painting her nails at a table in the middle of the restaurant. Eleven-year-old Alem Jr. and five-year-old Joseph are watching TV on a laptop in a dark-blue vinyl booth. A refrigerator full of Jarritos soda and homemade salsas sits under an oval plaque that reads “God Bless America.”

    Maria Hernandez with partner Alem Gomez and their children (from left): Joseph, Azanaeth, Allison, Alem Jr.

    Each time the bells on the front door jingle as a customer walks in, Alem Jr. breaks away from his laptop to bring them water and a four-page plastic menu, though it probably only needs to be a page. Cafe Aroma’s menu is simple and not unlike what you might find at other Mexican spots: tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, burritos and the occasional daily special. Customers choose a meat (shredded chicken, beef or al pastor) and can leave full for less than $10.

    In a row of identical slate-gray rectangular buildings on a small hillside in Clifton, Cafe Aroma is a word-of-mouth kind of place. There’s no roadside sign for the restaurant, and the sudden entrance off busy Brownsboro Road feels uninviting, if you notice it at all.

    For some, the inside of the restaurant isn’t very inviting, either. Hernandez says sometimes people walk in, look around at the beige tile floor, the white textured ceiling and the dated fixtures, then smile apologetically as they back out the door without ever trying the food.

    Cafe Aroma's carne asada tostada.

    Which is a shame. Both Hernandez and Gomez are clear about the kind of food you’ll find here. It isn’t Tex-Mex. It’s tomatoes, onions, tomatillos and chiles, topped with the bright green of fresh cilantro and lime wedges. It’s queso fresco, mole and jalapeño salsa, made by the couple every few days.

    Now the de facto chef in his own restaurant, Gomez makes the same staples his mother made for him in Veracruz, Mexico, where both he and Hernandez grew up. His mother passed away last year, and when he cooks, he feels closer to her. “He doesn’t really like anyone else in his kitchen,” Hernandez says in a soft voice, so Gomez can’t hear. “He doesn’t think anyone can make the al pastor sauce like him.”

    Hernandez and Gomez first arrived in Louisville 15 years ago to join Gomez’s six brothers and sisters and their families here. The couple worked in restaurants around town, and they were miserable. “I couldn’t even get five minutes to myself,” Hernandez says. “They told me I couldn’t stop working all day long.”

    After she had her second child, working for someone else and putting her kids in daycare no longer felt right to Hernandez. Plus, it was too expensive. “The restaurant paid me $10 an hour,” she says, holding up her fingers to demonstrate. “Then they took money out for taxes.” She puts one finger down. “Childcare cost $5 an hour.” Five more fingers down. “That left me with only $4 an hour.” She shakes her head at the remaining fingers. “I said, ‘No more.’”

    Items for sale in the tienda.

    When Hernandez and Gomez opened Cafe Aroma in 2011, their friends and family told them they were crazy. People said, “You know you have to spend money to open a restaurant.” “Everyone told us we would lose that money,” Hernandez says. “But we’re still here.”

    Hernandez and Gomez are definitely still here, and all the time. Cafe Aroma is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m., except for Sundays, when they open late and close early. The couple are the only official employees, and they do everything: cooking, cleaning, serving customers. They also sell phone cards to immigrants who live nearby (most are from Guatemala, according to Hernandez) and process wire transfers for them so they can send money back home to their families. “It’s better for me to have my kids here than anywhere else,” Hernandez says. “Family is everything to us. Everything we do, we do for them, so they can have a good life.”

    Sometimes, during the slow hours of the afternoon, Hernandez and Gomez close the restaurant so they can take the kids somewhere fun. Hernandez says they like shopping for toys, except for Alem Jr. “He doesn’t want toys anymore,” she says. “He wants things like headphones.”

    Cafe Aroma's chicken burrito.

    Azaeneth climbs down from Hernandez’s hip, and a few wobbly steps later, she falls. Her little arms and legs splay out as the yogurt in her ice cream cone splashes across the floor. Hernandez runs over, picks her back up. “It’s OK, mi amor,” she says, shushing Azaeneth and patting her back. “See? If someone else was taking care of her,” Hernandez says, “I couldn’t be there when she falls.”

    This originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Aroma, Mi Amor.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Danny Alexander,

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