Old Havana Sandwich Shop Shares Cuban Culture with Customers

Old Havana Sandwich Shop Shares Cuban Culture with Customers

Recent trips to his native Cuba leaves Old Havana Sandwich Shop’s Roberto Copa Matos and his wife, Elizabeth Turnbull, grateful for the opportunity to share the country’s food and culture in Durham

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Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull never take for granted the success of their Old Havana restaurant. Whether it’s choosing local heritage pork to make dishes that reflect Havana’s heyday as a bustling 19th-century port city or creating modern meals that reflect the diversity of the Latin experience in America, they ground every decision in a guiding principle of authenticity.

Photo by Wally Turnbull
Photo by Wally Turnbull

So when they agreed to take two groups of travelers on a trip to newly opened Cuba in February, they likewise wanted their guests to have an authentic experience. Little went as planned, but they enjoyed a range of cultural exchanges that could not have been imagined just a few years ago.

“When you go to Cuba, you pack sunscreen, bug spray and flexibility,” Elizabeth says, recounting harrowing tales of overbooking and disreputable go-betweens who expected bribes. “In the end,” she adds, “there’s no better experience to uphold the value of a free market, and the value of capitalism, than to bring guests to Cuba.”

They eventually secured accommodations in casa particulares: private residences only recently allowed to rent rooms. The couple was glad to direct resources to locals desperate for income and pleased that guests got to see both the daily deprivations and hopes for brighter futures among native Cubans.

Photo by Wally Turnbull
Photo by Wally Turnbull

They spoke with people who were surprisingly candid about entrepreneurial endeavors, including a young doctor who gave up her low-paying government career to become an in-demand tattoo artist and caterer. And they toured the historic district of Old Havana with a city architect passionately involved in restoring once grand landmarks.

“I was very pleased to see how Cuba is changing,” Roberto says, noting that poverty and hunger are beginning to decrease thanks to an economy that now values farming. “It is changing in a positive way. … It’s a step to get to a better place.”

A highlight for both groups was a visit with Roberto’s family. They hosted rooftop dinner parties made possible by three months of careful shopping for ingredients. “We take it for granted that when you go to the store they not only have bags of rice, but different kinds,” says Roberto, who imported enough dishes, glasses and flatware for everyone, and then left it all behind. “There, you might only be able to buy a scoopful a day.”

While proud to have been able to show guests his homeland, Roberto returned to Durham more convinced than before that he made the right choice to leave – and, especially, the decision to build a full life in Durham. He appreciates the opportunity to introduce locals to Cuban fare through special dinner events, The Lost Dishes of Cuba, on the third Friday of each month.

“Raised under communism, I think about what is the responsible thing to do or not do,” he says. “Having this restaurant gives us a platform. We’re proud to do our part, however small, to help Americans learn about Cuba and Cubans learn about America. It brings me a lot of joy.”

Taste for Yourself

The next Lost Dishes of Cuba dinner takes place Aug. 19 – visit oldhavanaeats.com/events to peruse the four-course menu and buy your tickets (just $45, plus tax and gratuity). Or come to the shop at 310 E. Main St. for lunch Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and for Sunday brunch. We recommend the El Caney with a side of croquetas!

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