by Evan Hatch
The Old Havana Sandwich Shop faces Main Street in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Business and life partners Elizabeth Turnbull and Roberto Copa Matos surely pinched themselves when they first saw the limestone edifice that became their restaurant. Arched porticoes, vaulted windows and polished wood floors lend this space a warm and historic feel, redolent of Cuba. The Old Havana Sandwich Shop is a dream for Durham, strategically and symbolically located between the bustling, gleaming strip of new downtown Durham businesses and the drab institutional exteriors of the city government buildings. A simple sculpted hog in profile is perched above the entrance, marking the restaurant for patrons. The restaurant is a labor of love, and Turnbull and Matos have imbued the establishment with both. Old Havana holds all the pedigrees sacred to modern food culture – local, quality, deliciousness, hipster credibility, cultural relevance, and social action. Add to those qualities affordability, and you have this destination. Step up, folks, and step in.
Simple and straightforward, the menu is also smart and streamlined. It offers classic fare of Cuban style sandwiches, plantains and black beans and rice. Simplicity is one strength; quality another. The owners insist on using heritage hogs for their pork-centric menu. And they insist on using most of the animal as well – none of this “lechon asado” appears to be wasted at this restaurant. Several menu items – house-made aioli, glistening pork drippings, pulled pork, house cured hams – appear more than once and grace individual dishes to unique effect. Sandwiches do take center stage, and the nearly dozen choices are creative, simple and honest. The black beans and rice – quite sublime and perfectly cooked – are worth the price of admission.
Plaintains or maduros are oven roasted and perfect for those seeking sweet or savory- crisp edges and starchy creamy centers. The Zorza, Old Havana’s house made chorizo, and its chilled pork pate sell out early in the week, so it is best to get there early to try these uncommon, but welcome offerings.
Matos and Turnbull take their business seriously. The food is excellent, the staff dedicated and a quick perusal of their website shows that the folks at Old Havana Sandwich Shop are community minded as well. You will often see Mrs. Turnbull or Mr. Copa Matos working in the kitchen, and it makes one want to meet them in person. Cuban music is played on the dining room soundtrack and on special occasions, played live in the restaurant. Salsa classes are offered for patrons on weekends. The folks at Old Havana have done much more than open a fantastic restaurant. They have made an investment in their community. This is the restaurant Durham – really every community – needs.
Tues-Thurs 11 am-3 pm
Fri-Sat 11 am-3 pm; 5 pm-10 pm (kitchen closes at 9:30 pm)
Sunday Brunch 11 am-3pm
Evan Hatch is a folklorist currently working with the North Carolina Folklife Institute in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson & Scotland counties. Since 2002, he worked in Middle Tennessee documenting traditional musical and material culture. He was producer at Spring Fed Records and served as President of the Tennessee Folklore Society.