Emmanuel Pérez is often told he’s a lot like his father, Idael — a friendly person, always talking, explaining, trying to make people feel comfortable. Since Idael’s tragic death in 2017, Emmanuel has stepped up to fill that role in a more definitive way, becoming the leader of a restaurateur family.
Prior to moving to the U.S., Emmanuel’s parents ran a small bed and breakfast in their native Cuba, where they boarded tourists from all over the world. His mother cooked while Idael played host, often taking guests on tours of the area in the family’s 1956 Ford Crown Victoria.
Fed up with increasing government pressure and regulations on their business, the family left Matanzas, Cuba, for North Carolina in 2015. Emmanuel, just a high school junior when the family landed in Lincolnton, says his father saw the U.S. as a country where growth and success were encouraged instead of hindered.
It was his father’s dream to open another family business in the U.S. In 2017, they purchased Havana Carolina Restaurant & Bar in Concord. That same year, Idael was killed in a car wreck when another driver fell asleep at the wheel and struck his car on the day before Thanksgiving.
The family was devastated to have lost their patriarch, but they have continued to carry his torch. In the five years since Idael’s death, the Pérez family has expanded its footprint as restaurateurs with the opening of El Puro Cuban Restaurant in south Charlotte’s Madison Park neighborhood.
Their work is their way of honoring his wish that they all be in business together.
“In this country, when you have a family, everybody works separate, so you only come together at night – dinnertime,” Emmanuel told me when I stopped by El Puro on a recent Thursday afternoon. “So my dad, he never wanted that. My dad always said, ‘We need to find a life where we can work together, see each other, push each other to do better.’ So that’s what he saw in the restaurant business — me and my sister, my mom in the kitchen, him running the customer service and all that.”
Tucked into a strip mall on South Boulevard, El Puro evokes the glamor and elegance of pre-revolutionary Havana through its interior design, including a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria on the outdoor patio that diners can eat inside — similar to the ’56 model that Idael once used to chauffeur guests of his bed and breakfast around Cuba.
The restaurant offers lunch, dinner, and, as of March 19, weekend brunch, which features items such as the ropa vieja benedict and G&C (guava and cream cheese) French toast.
But the story of El Puro is not as simple as a Cuban immigrant family realizing their own version of the American Dream. Originally rooted in themes of tragedy and sacrifice, it is through the strength of family that El Puro has become an example of how one can transform the pain of losing someone you love into something that keeps you going.
Latin Las Vegas
Emmanuel Pérez was a freshman in college, and his sister Ana was in high school when their father’s life was cut short in that tragic wreck shortly after the family purchased the Cuban restaurant Havana Carolina.
The first year after the accident was the most chaotic for his family, Emmanuel says, as they mourned his loss while trying to figure out the restaurant’s finances and keep in contact with vendors and others whom Idael worked with directly. Emmanuel credits his mother, Dania, for fighting to keep the restaurant open at a time when friends and family assumed it would close.
The family persevered, growing the family-style Havana Carolina and creating a loyal clientele base that would eventually inspire them to open El Puro, which technically translates to “pure” but in Cuba can be slang for “dad,” a tribute to their father, as well as “cigar,” a nod to one of Cuba’s leading exports.
El Puro aims to bring to life the memory that many Cubans who fled the country for America are nostalgic for, reminiscent of what the country could have become if Fidel Castro had not taken power in 1959 under promises of democracy, Emmanuel says.
He describes Cuba in the 1950s — before the revolution to overthrow Fulgencio Batista — as “Latin Las Vegas,” with tourists, mafia kingpins, socialites and celebrities flocking to Havana for gambling, shows, beaches and general debauchery.
“Yeah, it was a lot of corruption, but it was a lot of success, too,” Emmanuel says.
Walking into El Puro is meant to feel like stepping back in time. The lights are dim; plants hang from the ceiling next to gold chandeliers; and the walls are adorned with pictures of famous pre-revolutionary Cuban artists and personalities — singer Benny Moré, baseball player Esteban Bellán, chess master José Raúl Capablanca and boxer Kid Chocolate.
To the right sits a stage where live bands play jazz, salsa and popular English and Spanish music Tuesday through Saturday. Above the stage, in neon lettering, reads the phrase “la vida es un carnaval,” or “life is a carnival,” referencing a song of that name by Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.
The wallpaper above the restaurant’s bar depicts labels of pre-revolutionary Cuban cigar brands, no doubt a nod to El Puro’s name. They even sell their own line of cigars, hand-rolled in Miami, that can be purchased and enjoyed on the patio.
“It’s fine dining, but it’s a completely different concept,” Emmanuel says. “You come in, you’re in Cuba. You’re in the 1950s, 1940s, and you’re having a mojito and you’re listening to music and there’s people around you. And that’s the space that we’re creating.”
‘Food is tradition’
The menu at El Puro offers rum drinks, palomas and mojitos; as well as traditional dishes like ropa vieja (shredded beef brisket, red peppers, onions, criolla jus, roasted potatoes); Cuban fried rice with sweet plantains; seafood paella; and rabo encendido (red wine braised oxtail, grilled asparagus). Of course, they make a Cuban sandwich, too.
Emmanuel grew up eating some of El Puro’s dishes, while others his family enjoyed less often due to Cuba’s strict laws on beef.
In 1963, it became illegal for Cubans to kill their cows or sell beef without permission after Hurricane Flora killed 20% of the country’s cow population. It was only last year that Cuba announced it would loosen the decades-old ban as the country battles food shortages.
“It’s illegal to eat beef unless you go to the store. The beef, the steak, is really expensive, so no one can afford it,” Emmanuel says. “The only way for you to eat beef is to buy it on the black market. But if you buy it on the black market, maybe whoever is selling it, they kill a cow, and killing a cow in Cuba is worse than killing a person.”
Brunch at El Puro offers standouts like tres leches pancakes (buttermilk pancakes, leche condensada, dulce de leche, candied walnuts) and la habanera (thin Cuban bread crust, sofrito sauce, lechon asado, ham, mozzarella, feta, sunny-side up eggs), with a slew of Cuban coffee options to go alongside those.
But the most popular item at El Puro is masitas de la loma (fried pork shoulder, caramelized onions, garlic and onion mojo served on a roasting box).
According to Emmanuel, pork is popular in Cuba because pigs are easier and cheaper to raise than cows — not to mention legal to kill. It’s traditional to roast a whole pig at parties and on special occasions like New Year’s and Christmas.
“Food is tradition and every bite, every seasoning, has a meaning behind it,” Emmanuel says. “We just don’t put garlic because we want to, it’s because it has to have garlic to have flavor. We don’t use any hot sauces. Most of our food already has flavor because we season the meat, we put the mojo criollo in every pork dish that we do.
“So we get a lot of people from this area, ‘Can I have some sauce to dip it in?’” he continues. “But you don’t need to. I mean, I have sauce, but you don’t need it.”
Feel the energy
Rather than a memorial to Emmanuel’s father, El Puro Cuban Restaurant is a snapshot of the country he loved and a testament to the strength of the family he headed. The only picture you’ll find of him in El Puro is in the logo.
Emmanuel said he knows that, wherever his father is, he’s proud of the family.
“Everything that I do, I try to do better every day because my dad always told me that because we’re not from this country, we had to do better and do the best,” Emmanuel says. “We can even do better than the people from here because we need to be noticed and we need to be noticed for the good.”
Emmanuel has returned to Cuba twice to visit his grandparents, but doesn’t have any regrets about leaving permanently for the U.S. He says it’s sad to see the people he grew up with, who have the energy and want to succeed, stuck in the same place due to Cuba’s repressive government.
“It’s like a road that is blocked and if you go past it, you fall,” he says. “Hopefully it will change one day. But again, I don’t know.”
In the meantime, El Puro is his family’s way of honoring Cuba and a time in the country’s history — before the revolution, before Castro and before the breakdown of U.S. relations — that many Cuban-Americans still romanticize to this day.
And Emmanuel isn’t done yet. He said he has plenty of ideas for making the El Puro experience even more immersive, including cabaret shows (a nod to the famed El Tropicana Night Club in Havana), cocktail classes and roasting a whole pig for brunch — because “there’s nothing more Cuban than that,” he says.
“This is the Cuba that I want to show people. The good food, the good drinks, the energy. You come in, just leave your problems. Just feel the energy. Feel the good vibes that we have in here and just relax,” Emmanuel says. “This is my house. So every time you come in, I’m inviting you in my house with a cup of coffee, with a plate of food.”
In that way, Emmanuel is like Charlotte’s unofficial tour guide of Cuban culture, much like his father was, driving around in his 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, talking and showing off his country.