story and photos by Angie Kay Dilmore
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we visited with Gus Garden, owner of the popular Latin restaurant, Area 337 in Lake Charles.
arden was born and raised in Dominican Republic. In 2001, at the age of 14, he and his family moved to Miami. During and after high school, Garden worked at several fast-food establishments, where he began to learn about the food service industry. In 2009, he moved to Puerto Rico. “That’s where the fun began,” Garden says. “I started working in upscale restaurants. Because I knew English, I took care of the tourists. Though I always worked the front of the house, I learned about Puerto Rican cooking – how to make the rice, plantains, yucca.” In this environment, Garden honed his customer service skills, explaining the food culture and preparation to clients, remembering their preferences, and earning their trust. Later, he became a manager and learned those skills.
After a few years in Puerto Rico, Garden returned to Miami. He worked as a manager for three Starbucks at the Miami airport. During this time, he met his wife, Yuliana Figueroa, who is from Colombia. The couple moved to Virginia, where he managed three Starbucks there. But financial concerns led him to take a job as a pipe fitter assistant. The lure of a lucrative industry job led Garden to Louisiana. He sold his car, bought a motorcycle, packed a few bags, and drove to Southwest Louisiana in two days. He worked in several industrial contract positions here and in Texas from 2016 to early 2020. Being laid off during the pandemic gave Garden time to think about what he truly wanted to do. “I wanted to do something different with my life, to be happy with my work. I didn’t want work to feel like work.”
One day in the fall of 2020, Garden noticed a For Lease sign on a building on Kirkman St. “I saw some potential, trusted my instincts, followed my heart, and signed the lease. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but I knew I could make it work. This restaurant has been a lot of work! And money has been tight sometimes. But so far, it’s working out.”
Garden has spent the past two years fixing, rebuilding, and remodeling the structure, inside and out, and molding it into his own vision. He opened Area 337 for business in February 2021. Staffing the kitchen, he has a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and Sra. Ana from Dominican Republic, cooking an eclectic mix of Latin cuisine. For fun, they toss in a bit of Colombian fare.
“Everything we serve is fresh,” Garden says. “The food we serve here is the food we eat at home – traditional Hispanic home cooking. For example, my personal favorite is the chicken stew. But sometimes we fuse a traditional entree by adding Latin ingredients, such as coconut pesto and halibut to a pasta dish.”
Once the word got out, Area 337 quickly gained an enthusiastic following. Garden credits excellent service for their success. “When you make someone feel at home, they’re going to come back. The food is important, but it’s not enough. When someone comes to my establishment, they become my friend. My clients give me the opportunity to share my culture.”
Area 337 is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Tuesdays they are open 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. and offer Happy Hour with half-price drinks, salsa and merengue dancing and lessons, and a special taco and arepa menu.
Located at 2500 Kirkman St., Lake Charles. Find them on Facebook or call 337-488-8464.