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After 20 years in business, the owners of Midtown’s Cafe Marika said they are living their dream – but getting there was no easy task.
Lubomir (Louie) and Eva Chruma were living in Karlovy Vary – a spa and resort town in then-Czechoslovakia, but they dreamed of escaping the communist regime and moving to the United States.
“We escaped in 1982,” Eva said. “We bought a vacation to Yugoslavia and crossed into Austria.”
After seven months in a NATO refugee camp in Austria with others who had fled the Eastern Bloc countries, the Chrumas were able to travel to the United States with permission from the American consulate.
Without knowing where they would be living, the two professional chefs and their 5- and 7-year-old children hoped for a life in California.
“Our wish was California, and our wish came true,” Louie said. “They just put us here.”
That was on Jan. 18, 1983, and the first order of business for the 30-somethings was learning English. Though the Chrumas now speak excellent English, both said they are still learning and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.
Now, however, they have help from an unexpected source.
“Our grandkids are telling us proper pronunciation,” Eva said with a laugh.
They worked as chefs in a variety of restaurants over their first seven years in America, with one of the highlights of that time being when they received United States citizenship.
“I am very happy to be an American,” Louie said. “This is our home here. We are only Americans – we don’t have Czech citizenship.”
On Aug. 1, 1990, the Chrumas purchased Cafe Marika from an aging Hungarian couple that had been running the 2011 J St. restaurant.
Louie said Marika is a girl’s name that translates as “Little Maria.”
“We took it over, but we brought a little bit more,” Louie said, adding that keeping the name and customer base was a benefit to starting a new business.
Cafe Marika’s fare consists of Eastern European food, with heavy influences from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Menu items include pan-fried pork schnitzel – breaded pork filets pan-fried and served with Bohemian potato salad or homemade pasta; chicken paprikash – skinless chicken thighs cooked in a mild paprika sauce and served on homemade pasta; and numerous salads and other entrees.
With authentic food, the Chrumas said they tend to have a lot of travelers coming in and looking to relive a dining experience they had half a world away.
Most of their customers are regulars, and Louie said his favorite aspect of running the business is talking to them.
“We are more of a family,” he said. “It’s like they’re coming to our home.”
One regular customer is Fashion Consultant Pete Haynes, who makes the short jaunt from his nearby Denim Spot at 20th and J streets as often as he can.
“The food is great,” he said. “The only time I don’t eat there is when I feel obligated to eat at one of my neighbors’ places. I probably refer two people there per week.”
Haynes added that he likes the family atmosphere.
“Louie is a nice guy,” Haynes said. “His wife is great. It’s almost like going to your aunt and uncle’s house.”
The cozy environs are reminiscent of similar family-owned restaurants sprinkled across Eastern Europe in cities like Prague and Budapest. The place is small, and they like it that way.
The interior features tables draped with white tablecloths and a counter with barstools. Paintings of European scenes hang on the walls, and the kitchen has its own protruding roof, giving it the look of a small lunch stand within the building.
“We don’t want to grow,” Louie said. “We want to be like this.”
With no employees, the Chrumas wake up at 5 a.m. each day except Sunday to operate the restaurant. And they’ve been doing it for 20 years with only one exception.
“Ten years ago I broke my ankle,” Eva said. “I couldn’t move around, and we had to close for three months.”
The couple has not returned to the Czech Republic in the 27 years since fleeing the Soviet regime. Eva said they haven’t had time, and Louie said he and his wife don’t miss it – they’re happy here.
Cafe Marika, 2011 J St., is open from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch and from 5-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday for dinner.
Dinner prices range from $11.50 to $13.75, and all lunches are $7.25.
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.