Story and photos by Lindsey Chester. Above, Havana Grill owner Robert Cardoso.
Cary, NC – A tropical oasis is exactly what Havana Grill owner Robert Cardoso set about to create when he opened his restaurant in 2007.
Cardoso , himself a Cuban immigrant via Miami to Cary, missed his own cuisine when he moved here. That lack spurred him to open his own establishment more than four years ago in the heart of Cary’s Downtown.
Havana Grill is one of the few restaurants that stay open past 11 on a weekend, and the place is hopping on a Saturday night with people who travel from as far away as Greensboro to enjoy a little salsa dancing and some Cuban specialties like Paella.
Before moving to Cary, Robert owned two restaurants in the Miami area named Frita’s Dominoes for ten years. He and his wife Aleida were not happy with the schools for their 3 children and when some military friends told him about this area, they decided to visit. They fell in love with Cary and decided to sell their restaurants and make a move.
Robert immediately liked his current location on West Chatham Street. It had decent parking (was a former Biscuitville) and he pictured having a patio and ample room for outdoor seating all year. He created an outdoor room that has space heaters and is used 12 months of the year. His brother painted a tropical mural on the back wall and there are real palm trees that help complete the illusion.
The Cuban Sandwich
But the real attraction is the authentic Cuban food. I asked him what he is known for and without hesitation Robert answered “my Cuban Sandwich”. For the uninitiated that means:
- homemade bread
- sliced roast pork
- sliced ham
- swiss cheese
- pickles and mustard
- and grilled to perfection
So what is Cuban food like? It is similar to Spanish, but not as spicy, and has Caribbean overtones, using lots of fresh ingredients, fruits and vegetables. And lots of pork! Cardoso emphasized that everything in his restaurant is made on site. The roast pork for instance is marinated over night in a sour orange secret recipe and then roasted for six hours. The bread is made daily. Every day at the counter are the specials which change all the time, and vary with the season.
Food in a Flash
Another specialty is how fast folks can be served. Believe it or not, workers come all the way from RTP to have his Cuban lunches because he can serve them in 3 minutes from the line and all for $6.75! Folks can have dinner for as little as $7.95. That includes a main dish and two sides.
Sweet Tooth: Guava Cheesecake
Havana Grill has won the 2010 City Search for best desserts – and he described a few for me. Everyone knows flan and his is made daily. But have you ever heard of three milk cake? I hadn’t either. He starts with a pound cake and literally soaks it in three milks (cream, sweetened condensed and evaporated) which is then topped with homemade whipped cream. He makes a knock out rice pudding and a guava cheesecake too.
For the Whole Family: Paella!
There may be late nights, but there’s also fun for the whole family. Every Friday is Family Karaoke Night which starts at 7pm. The atmosphere is open and inviting. Prices are easy on the wallet. Not a dish on the menu is over $12.95 . If you are from New York or New Jersey you may be missing your favorite paella – Robert makes it every Saturday, so check it out.
Officially the doors don’t open til 11am, but Robert assured me that he makes a mean cup of Cuban coffee and wonderful bread and many of his friends stop by knowing he is in the restaurant early preparing for the day. Next time I am over that way, I will check out some strong brew and say hello.
Havanna Grill is located on West Chatham Street next door to Frantz Automotive and frequently the two businesses share their parking.