If you think you hear salsa music next time you're in downtown Durham, you're not imagining it. Follow the sultry beat to its source and you'll find Old Havana Sandwich Shop (310 E. Main St.; 667-9525; www.oldhavanaeats.com), where vintage Cuban music mingles in the air with the fragrance of the slow-roasted pork that's featured on the restaurant's specialty sandwich.
Besides the classic Cuban (here called the Havana), the shop offers the Tampa (a salami-topped variation favored in that city) and the Santiago (a mojo-splashed chopped pork sandwich for purists). There's also a grill-pressed vegetarian sandwich, named Camaguey for the Cuban province known for its cheese.
Cuban native Robert Copa opened the shop in late January with his wife, Elizabeth Turnbull, after transforming a 1926 vintage building that was once home to the Durham Sun into a spot straight out of pre-Castro Havana. Copa (he's the friendly guy in the straw hat) will proudly tell you that the pork is from pasture-raised, antibiotic-free North Carolina pigs and that the bread is baked by Guglhupf.
Old Havana Sandwich Shop is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In the mornings, fans of café Cubano can get their fix along with Cuban toast and an assortment of pastries.
Puerto Rican fare
In Holly Springs, El Coqui (304 N. Main St.; 552-9409) specializes in the native cuisine of another Caribbean Island transplant. Building contractor Furqan Burgos longed for the foods of his native Puerto Rico, so he decided to open a restaurant and hired fellow Puerto Rican Gammy Ortero as chef.
The 21-year-old Ortero, who attended culinary school in Puerto Rico, responded with a broad menu of authentic fare that covers the spectrum from arroz con pollo to mofongo to pernil asado (a roast pork dish that's traditionally served for Christmas, but is available here most days).
"This is the kind of food our grandmas made," Burgos says. "People come in and they're surprised when they see a young guy cooking."
The food may well transport you to Puerto Rico, but the setting - a small dining room with fast food restaurant style booths in a strip mall attached to a gas station and convenience store - hardly keeps up its end of the bargain.
That hasn't prevented El Coqui from finding a devoted following, though. The restaurant is only a few months old, and Burgos is already eyeing a new, larger location.