Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull opened Old Havana Sandwich Shop in January 2011 with a modest menu and limited hours, at a location three blocks off the beaten path of eating and drinking establishments in downtown Durham.
They made a mean Cuban sandwich, though, and in no time, their little shop was benefiting from the best kind of marketing: word of mouth. Seven years later, the place was still thriving. The husband-and-wife owners easily could have rested on their laurels.
Lucky for us, they didn’t. Over the years, they expanded the menu, adding small plates and a handful of entrees. Weekend brunch followed, and a bar. A couple of years ago, the restaurant began hosting a “Lost Dishes of Cuba” dinner series. Inspired by a 19th century cookbook that Copa Matos had discovered, the recipes drew on cultural influences of Africa, Asia, and especially Spain, and featured a surprising variety of ingredients such as celery and cauliflower, crops that had been casualties of the Cuban revolution.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the trajectory that led to the couple’s inevitable next step: a bigger, more ambitious restaurant. They closed Old Havana Sandwich Shop in February, and opened COPA a few blocks away — this time in the thick of the action — in March.
Taking over the address that previously had been home to Revolution, they transformed the sleek modern space they inherited into a dining room with a casual, convivial vibe accented by the warm colors of Spanish tile floors, vintage-looking chandeliers, and a series of ink drawings by a Cuban artist celebrating the growing, preparation and enjoyment of food.
The new location’s larger kitchen, including a dedicated bakery where all breads are now baked in house, allow Copa Matos to spread his culinary wings and explore his native cuisine to a degree not possible at the old restaurant. The results are especially evident on the dinner menu, where a diverse assortment of salads, snacks and tapas builds on the chef’s historical research and draws heavily on local produce — including a small but growing harvest from the couple’s 10-acre family farm.
A small plate offering of vegetales y casabe recently yielded a cornucopia of eggplant, summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes and corn, plus tender, pale green black-eyed peas from the family farm, spilling off a couple of crepe-like flatbreads made from cassava root that Copa Matos grinds himself. Notwithstanding that “flatbread” description, this is definitely a knife-and-fork dish.
Those same flatbreads serve as a foundation for ropa vieja a la americana, a variation on Cuba’s signature dish unlike any you’ve likely seen before. The dish, another product of the chef’s historical research, features North Carolina grass-fed beef, slow-cooked with wine, mint, and a light tomato sauce. It’s winning converts who previously didn’t think they liked ropa vieja, and no wonder.
Copa Matos calls on his Spanish heritage (the restaurant bears his paternal family name, a tribute to the family’s roots in Galicia) for his distinctive presentation of another Cuban classic, arroz con pollo. Taking a cue from paella, he first browns bone-in chicken legs and thighs skin-side down in a paella pan, then turns them so that the skin remains exposed above the level of the rice and chicken broth that he adds to the pan. The result — supremely moist, crisp-skinned chicken against a backdrop of scratch-made broth enriched with sofrito and spices — is the best of both worlds.
The menu is liberally sprinkled with dishes you don’t usually see on the menu at a Cuban restaurant. Papas bravas and tortilla a la espagnola come to mind, the paprika-spiced potato dish and omelet that you’d expect to see at a Spanish tapas bar.
Butifaros are Cuban — according to the menu, “Cuban-style sausages, with a surprising mix of spices, including cinnamon, anis and clove.” So is queso de cabesa (“Cuban-style pork terrine”). Both are new to me, and I’d happily order either again.
That’s not to say that those seeking the comfort of the familiar won’t find it here. Plantains get their just due, in the form of chicharitas (crispy ribbons of fried green plantain, served with mojo sauce for dipping) and caramel-crusted sweet maduros. Platanos rellenos, plantains stuffed with a savory pork picadillo, are served with a black bean sauce for dipping. All are exemplary.
In fact, it’s hard to go wrong here, no matter what you order. That includes dessert, which might be anything from a simple plate of walnuts and honey to tarta de Santiago, a classic (and coincidentally gluten-free) Spanish almond cake hailing from the Copa family’s ancient home, Galicia.
Then again, I don’t think I could resist ending my meal with a La Diosa Negra cocktail. An inspired creation by Elizabeth Turnbull (it was featured in Wine & Spirits magazine), it’s made with spiced rum and coffee liqueur, and infused with Cuban tobacco smoke.
The versatile Turnbull tends to a bar with an outstanding selection of Cuban cocktails in addition to handling the marketing side of the restaurant, and sometimes taking over pastry chef duties. (You can try both the classic daiquiri and Hemingway’s famous variation here.)
Oh, and those Cuban sandwiches? You can still get them at lunchtime or weekend brunch. They still feature mojo-marinated, slow-roasted humanely raised local pork. You can still get the traditional Cubano (here called the Havana, with house-cured ham, cheese, pickle and mustard) as well as several other regional variations on the grill-pressed theme. And they still rival the best I’ve had in Tampa and Miami.
107 W. Main St., Durham
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: casual and convivial
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: butifaros, papas bravas, vegetales y casabe, arroz con pollo, ropa vieja a a americana, sandwiches
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in two nearby garages.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.