Steven Hernandez Death -The family of Steven Hernandez decided to keep his Aurora restaurant open that day and through the weekend despite the shock of losing their father and husband to a heart attack as he was wrapping up a Friday morning walk with his dog last week. They did this as a way to honor this man who was, for so many, a larger than life figure in the community. More than 800 friends, admirers, and customers crowded into La Cabana Mexican Cafe on River Street over the course of those three days, proving that it was the right decision. They were brought together not just by their loss, but also by their common love for this long-time restaurateur in Aurora, Esteban, who took over the company in 1992 after his father Esteban had founded it 20 years earlier.
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Hernandez and his staff allegedly offered the best Mexican food in the area, and according to several social media posts, Hernandez gave each and every client who entered his establishment the largest smile and the warmest handshake. Richard Emilio, who has been dining at La Cabana with wife Gail for 33 years, argued that you should also add “generous heart” to that description. The couple had considered staying home from La Cabana last Friday because “we were so much in shock,” said Emilio, who became emotional as we spoke about his good friend who “treated everyone as if they were family” and “was generous to a fault.”
Arlene Hawks and her husband Dick also drove to the restaurant on Sunday after hearing word of the owner’s sudden passing. But they decided against going inside, partly because it was so crowded and partly because “I was just so sad.” I could not go in there without seeing Steve” whose “smile just lit up the world,” she said. When he was there, you felt at home because of the way he made you feel. Similar emotions were reflected in the social media outpouring. Many noted the exceptional Mexican cuisine that was served there, particularly the salsa and chips that not only drew out-of-towners to the restaurant, but the combo was also delivered out of state to those who had grown attached to this menu item, some since childhood.
There were a lot of remarks regarding the cuisine. However, the proprietor was the center of attention because he not only served as the restaurant’s face and voice, but also its soul. One patron remarked, “We’ve toured the nation, and La Cabana is the best there is. Not just because the food is outstanding, but also because Steve always takes the time to say hi and chat. One woman recalled her mom being in the hospital for almost two weeks and “all she wanted was La Cabana” when she finally got back home. “Steve,” the daughter wrote, “gave me her meal for free.”
Hawks and others also remembered Hernandez as a strong supporter of the Aurora neighborhood, particularly of Marmion Academy, where he had served on the board of trustees, and Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Parish, where he had attended grade school before completing his high school education at East Aurora High School in 1969. That commitment to the city ran deep, said his oldest of three sons, Steve Hernandez, which is why even when officials from other towns would try to convince his dad to move the business to their communities, “he wanted to stay in Aurora.”
For many years, according to Hernandez, the restaurant “owned him,” and even when the 2012 recession made it difficult to maintain the business, his father refused to raise his pricing and utilized his own money “so he could continue to serve his regular clientele.” The senior Hernandez found a buyer and was about to close on the business in March 2020, while he and his wife Ophelia daydreamed of a retirement on a Florida beach, when the state enacted a pandemic lockdown. Even those who live their lives thinking of others must also take care of themselves, as his son who is the Fermilab fire chief and works with the Geneva Fire Department pointed out. His father had complained of shortness of breath a few days prior to his death but disregarded recommendations to see a doctor.
As the family gets ready for the visitation on Sunday at Dieterle Memorial Home in Montgomery and the funeral Mass on Monday at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Good Counsel, many people are asking what will happen to the restaurant that was shut down this week. “We are putting our father and husband to rest first,” Steve Hernandez told me. “And then we will evaluate” where to go from here. There is no doubt, though, about how much we will miss this man with the huge smile, the kind handshake, and the kind heart. Richard Emilio said, “We heard it repeatedly at the restaurant on Friday. Steve had a huge fan base.
PC: The Beacon News
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