Friday, June 20, 2014

Willie's Place offers unique food for Dothan Regional Airport (KDHN), Alabama

When most people think of airport food, they picture chain restaurants and stale sandwiches.

But not here.

Dothan Regional Airport’s restaurant is so unique, it can’t even be categorized.

Willie’s Place is a Puerto Rican-inspired, fresh-food joint selling made-to-order sandwiches, salads, empanadas, appetizers and all-day breakfasts.

“I keep hearing from people that the service is excellent and the food is great,” said Airport Director Art Morris. “He brings something very unique here.”

The “he” is Chef William Rivera, owner of Willie’s Place restaurants in Dothan, Daleville and now, the airport.

Rivera moved into the airport’s only restaurant spot earlier this year and began charming clients with his freshly-made Puerto Rican-slash-Cuban-slash-Americana creations, Morris said.

The trick, said Rivera, is to serve mouth-watering, fresh food that makes people happy.

“We are cooking fresh daily,” he said Thursday, while nailing his own paintings to the walls of his airport restaurant. “Every item we prepare is cooked to order. It’s not a fast food restaurant. It’s healthy. It’s like a reward to the body.”

Chris Joiner agreed.

Joiner, a professor at nearby Wallace College, said he’s become a regular at Willie’s airport location because of the tasty food and excellent service.

Plus, he said, anyone eating at the airport receives free parking for two hours, with validation.

“I travel quite a bit, but usually in airports you find the chain-type restaurants,” Joiner said.

But Willie’s is different – way different, he said.

“It’s really, really good,” he said. “The staff always goes out of their way. The ingredients are super-fresh, and they give you large portions.”

Joiner said he usually orders the daily special, and Wednesday has become one of his favorite days. That’s the day Rivera serves plantain casserole, a dish Joiner can only describe as “unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.”

Rivera came to Dothan five years ago to work as a cook at the airport’s then-restaurant, Dante’s Pizza.

When he arrived in Dothan, Rivera said he fell in love with the city and the people he viewed as warm, welcoming and polite.

In February 2011, he opened Willie’s Place on Oates Street. The restaurant incorporated his Puerto Rican heritage and the cuisines he loves from all over the world.

He began a similar-concept restaurant about two years ago at the old L.A. Fresco on Daleville Avenue in Daleville. Rivera said the restaurant has never carried his name, but that will change when his “Willie’s Place” sign arrives on Monday.

Now, Rivera is the third or fourth restaurateur to move into the airport space. He said he has no intention of closing any of his other restaurants, and he’s ready for the new challenge of serving airport-goers with his unique cuisine.

“This is not fast food,” he said. “This is real food.”

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