Culture connection

Cuisine People

December 1, 2022

From cuisine and salsa dancing to cigar rolling and classic cars, the family behind El Puro brings a taste of their Cuban roots to Charlotte.

by Sharon Smith  |  photographs by Justin Driscoll

View from the bar of El Puro Restaurant on South Boulevard in Charlotte.
Photograph courtesy El Puro

Before one can taste the flavor journey that awaits at El Puro on South Boulevard in Madison Park, the sights and sounds of pre-revolutionary Cuba greet visitors as they walk in the door.

“It’s going to be like spending a day in Havana,” says Ana Acela Perez, who was born in Cuba and owns El Puro along with her older brother, Emmanuel Perez and mother, Dania Hernandez.

A classic, red-and-white 1955 Ford convertible repurposed as a seating booth frames a front corner of the covered patio, decorated with palms and greenery. Ferns and yellow flowers poke out of the trunk, which doubles as a container garden. A vanity plate reads — what else — “El Puro,”  which in Spanish is a term used to mean “father” or “father figure.” 

Everything here is done with the intention of capturing a point in time before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, when the arts and freedom flourished. Perez points to the big brass statement chandeliers, which she picked out because they depict the classic glamour and elegance of Old Havana. 

Photos of Cuban luminaries like singer Celia Cruz line the walls. A neon sign near the entrance reads Te quedarás porqué te doy cariño, which translates to “You will stay here because I give you love.” Above the sign, there’s a mural of Benny Moré, the iconic Cuban singer whom Perez calls the “El Puro” of Cuban culture.

It’s a sensory roadmap designed to transport guests back to that bygone era. There’s live music each night and monthly car shows in the parking lot (all makes and models are welcome, though American classics are a favorite). The restaurant has its own cigar brand and frequently hosts cigar-rolling demonstrations. Perez even teaches free salsa lessons to guests on Wednesday nights. “I do it out of love,” she says. “I want them to come here and not only learn but to enjoy themselves and to feel like they’re welcome … that they’re in the culture.” 

And there’s the food 

Vertical photo clockwise from left: Garbanzos Fritos, Langosta Macorina, Tostones Rellenos, Botero Salad
Left top photo: Flan Kafe, Left bottom photo: Tamal en Hoja

The mingling of fine cuisine, music and dance creates an immersive dining experience. Perez’s eyes light up talking about the menu and how every item is authentically Cuban-inspired. “I think people who know food know that it’s well done,” she says about a lack of knowledge around Cuban cuisine and a dearth of local establishments. “We are trying to educate people on our food,” she says. “In our country, there’s also really fancy restaurants.”

She smiles describing her favorite appetizer, garbanzos fritos. “I could eat this for every meal … you have to mix it all together, that’s what we do in Cuba,” she says pointing to the sides of plantains and rice. When eaten together, the starter could indeed serve as a main dish. The added depth of chorizo and smoked bacon paired with the beans and house-made sofrito make this dish a solid start to a well-paced meal.  

One of the most popular appetizers, tostones rellenos, consists of ropa vieja (shredded beef brisket) and sharp cheddar cheese held together by fried plantain cups. It’s another hearty and satisfying introduction to El Puro’s cuisine. There are also plenty of seafood selections, like langosta macorina (sauteed Caribbean lobster tail with creole sauce and avocado crema), seafood paella and pargo entero (whole fried red snapper with mojo marinade and a lemon finish).

Pargo Entero (whole fried snapper), El Jibaro, Classic Mojito

The dessert menu includes a traditional flan kafe (made with cafecito, or Cuban coffee) and a cuatro leches (not three!) sponge cake, a variation of the popular Latin American tres leches dessert. Emmanuel oversees the bar and cocktail menu, which has standard favorites like a mojito and the more adventurous El Jibaro (tequila reposado, dry vermouth, guava nectar, fresh lime juice and cayenne syrup).  

And while the warm, dim lighting makes it easy to miss, at the bar there’s a small suitcase tucked into an upper shelf, above rows of bottles and glassware. Perez says it represents how little the family brought to America with them, nothing more than what a suitcase could hold.

Inspired by “El Puro”

The owners of El Puro Restaurant, Ana Acela Perez, Dania Hernandez and Emmanuel Perez.

Ana Acela Perez, Dania Hernandez and Emmanuel Perez

The Perez family came to the States in 2015 and settled in Lincolnton to be with extended family. “It was a very different life . . . starting over and not knowing the language or culture,” Perez says. Her father worked overnight in a stockroom. Her mother found a minimum-wage job at a long-term care facility. “I remember him going home, and my mom had to prepare the bathtub full of ice and water” to soothe his sore muscles. 

Within two years, they started to turn a corner. Idael and Dania had just purchased Havana Carolina, a restaurant in downtown Concord. They were excited to share their love of Cuban food and culture.

Two months into the new venture, Idael was tragically taken from them — killed instantly in a car crash the day before Thanksgiving. Perez says they were so overwhelmed and heartbroken, it would have been easy to quit. She was a senior in high school, and her brother had just started college. 

Their mom was determined to continue. “My mom always told me that when something terrible happens in your life, you’ve got two options. You either let that thing destroy you, or you use it to strengthen you and inspire other people.”

Perez says El Puro is a love letter dedicated to her father. His picture is on the logo, a reminder of his legacy and love that endures. 

Two Cubas

Left photograph courtesy El Puro

For the Perez family, the cultural nods harken back to home and the stories told by grandparents of pre-Castro Cuba. Perez’s retelling of their history evokes more than a sense of fond nostalgia. There’s a sense of longing for what was and what could have been.

Perez grew up in Castro’s Cuba, but her parents shielded the children from their struggles and scarcity of freedom. They created a happy childhood full of dance lessons for her and baseball games for Emmanuel. Idael was artistic, known as a percussionist, while Dania worked as a nurse. Eventually, her parents branched out and built their own bed-and-breakfast. With entrepreneurial success came a cost. 

“They came to the United States because of opportunities and freedom because, you know, Cuba is a very beautiful island but, unfortunately, our government is not the best,” Perez says.

Taxes on the bed-and-breakfast soared as government overreach grew stifling. Perez says entrepreneurs like her parents were not empowered to flourish at the expense of government-run competitors.

Perhaps that explains their enthusiasm for El Puro and Havana Carolina. “We could never do this in Cuba,” says Perez, who just graduated in May from UNC Charlotte. “We are young, we are learning . . . but you can do anything in this country, so why not do it?”

Last month, the restaurant celebrated its one-year anniversary. Working as a family through it all, Dania Hernandez says, has been their greatest strength. “We demand to be better at every step but enjoy every moment of the process,” Hernandez says. “What we have created today is the result of constant work and the certainty that enjoying it together is the greatest blessing we can have.”

Her son echoes that sentiment. “Everything we have accomplished has been thanks to our unity and sacrifice throughout the years. El Puro is just the beginning of many big things happening in the future. I know my dad is very proud of us and guiding us through every step of the process,” Emmanuel Perez says.

El Puro would be so proud. Ana Acela Perez blinks hard several times and acknowledges that yes, their father would have loved to see his dream come true in America. “That logo, that’s my Dad,” she says nodding. And he would probably be at the restaurant most nights playing the drums, enjoying the crowd.  SP

El Puro serves dinner nightly, lunch, Tuesday-Friday and weekend brunch at 5033 South Blvd. Find the restaurant online or on Instagram @elpurocubanrestaurant.

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