The remarkable story of Havana Carolina, a Cuban restaurant where two UNC Charlotte students help keep their father’s dream alive

The remarkable story of Havana Carolina, a Cuban restaurant where two UNC Charlotte students help keep their father’s dream alive
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Some American dreams begin with tragedy.

On a chilly Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving two years ago, a man driving a pickup truck fell asleep at the wheel on N.C. Highway 73 near the Lincoln County Airport. He drifted across the centerline of the two-lane road, narrowly missed one vehicle, then struck a Ford Focus with a family inside. Idael Pérez Maldonado, a 44-year-old father of two, was killed instantly.

Idael’s family had purchased the Focus two days earlier as a present for his daughter, Ana Pérez Ochoa, 17 at the time. With a broken arm that still bears a scar, Ana was rushed into surgery at Carolinas Medical Center. Two extended family members who were in the Focus were treated for injuries at the scene. The driver of the pickup truck was unhurt.

It was November 22, 2017, two years after Idael and his family arrived by plane from Cuba. A month before the crash, they’d purchased Havana Carolina Restaurant & Bar in historic downtown Concord.

One of Idael’s biggest concerns about American life was that it was too busy, that people worked too much to spend time with the ones who mattered most. Buying the restaurant was a way to keep his family together as often as possible.


“A dreamer,” his wife, Dania Ochoa Hernández, says of her late husband.

They first visited Havana Carolina in March 2017, about a year after moving to the country, while out celebrating a birthday for their son, Emmanuel Pérez Ochoa — Manny for short. They made quick friends with the owner, bonding over their previous lives in Cuba and the story of Havana Carolina.

The timing was perfect. The Misa family owned and ran both the restaurant and Havana Carolina Bakery, which is about four miles up the road in Kannapolis.

The work was proving too much for the Misas. The father was looking for someone to take over the restaurant to allow him to continue with the bakery. In the fall of 2017, they closed on the sale of the restaurant to Idael.

Idael and his family had experience in the food industry, and loved working together. They’d owned a bed and breakfast in Cuba. But over the years, that became more difficult as food prices rose and products became scarce in their home country.

“Right now it’s really hard to find the stuff that you need for the restaurant,” Manny, now 20, says, explaining the family’s decision to close the B&B and move to the U.S. “Beef in Cuba is regulated so it’s really expensive.”

The penalty for killing a cow without government permission?

“It’s like killing a person,” Manny says.

Havana Carolina Cuban restaurant

Manny, Idael, Dania, and Ana moved to the United States from Cuba in 2015. Idael died in a car accident in 2017, not long after purchasing Havana Carolina restaurant in Concord.

Idael and Dania grew up in Holguin, in the eastern part of Cuba. Idael, a trained percussionist, was 20 years old when he moved across the island to the resort town of Varadero to play music for European tourists at swanky beachfront hotels and restaurants.

After he saved enough money, he returned to Holguin and married Dania. Together, they rented a small apartment in Matanzas, a 30-minute drive from the resorts of Varadero. Dania was in nursing school at the time.

The siblings know their parents’ love stories by heart.

“They moved to Matanzas without anything,” Manny says.

“Only a bag of clothes,” Ana adds.

They saved for a down payment and found a plot of land a few blocks from where the waters of the Straits of Florida converge with the Gulf of Mexico. But the space wasn’t nearly ready for business. It needed work.

“It’s where people would throw their trash,” Manny says.

They spent months clearing the property, then built, by hand, the cinder block structure. Six years passed before they saw their first customers at Casa Hostel Idael & Dania — friends Idael had made while playing music in Varadero.

With that, their first family business was born.

Mornings would start with Idael taking Manny and Ana in the family car to the market for traveling tourists staying at their bed and breakfast.

“We would go to the plaza and get the fresh vegetables, fresh fruits,” Manny says. “We’d go there every morning to get stuff for breakfast. When we’d get home, my mom would make breakfast, and I would send the breakfast to customers. Dinnertime, you’d get the lobster, shrimp, fresh — and my mom would make it.”

Havana Carolina sandwich

The Cuban sandwich flies off the menu. (Photo contributed by Havana Carolina)

Manny and Ana proudly point me to the positive reviews on TripAdvisor, with 166 excellent ratings out of 184 reviews. Most guests specifically recount the service Dania and Idael provided.

User James B. commented, “Idael and Dania were our favourite hosts in Cuba, they are incredibly welcoming and friendly and went out of their way to ensure that we enjoyed our stay,” adding, “Dania’s cooking is great!”

In April 2015, Evelynne2015 from Hamburg wrote that Dania’s was “the best lobster ever!”

The family’s goal now is to bring the same authentic Cuban experience felt by all those guests in Cuba to their restaurant in downtown Concord.

At their bed and breakfast in Cuba, Idael would play host. At Havana Carolina, it’s a family effort.

“Usually you don’t see me out in the weekend because I’m in the kitchen,” Dania says.

Manny is a junior at UNC Charlotte majoring in finance with a concentration in commercial real estate. All this hard work will pay off one day for him and his family, Manny says.

His weekends don’t resemble those of a typical college student: “I work the weekends,” Manny says. “I’m here.”

It’s been that way since the beginning. During the weekend, when the restaurant was open, he was here — behind the bar, out front greeting guests, whatever the restaurant needed.

Almost a year to the day after arriving in the U.S., Ana took part in the 2016 Miss Lincoln County Apple Queen pageant. Now a college sophomore, she laughs at her answer to the judges’ questions. One, in particular, was difficult for her, despite being in the country for a year.

A simple query for most Americans, the question was: ‘What is your favorite car?’

Growing up in the isolated culture of Cuba, Ana had only one answer: A pink Lamborghini.

“I heard it in that song,” Ana tells me matter-of-factly.

Her answer won the hearts of the judges, who crowned Ana as the first, first-generation Latina Miss Lincoln County Apple Queen.

After high school, Ana enrolled at UNC Charlotte as a political science major, in large part because of Cuba’s repressive government. There, she says, most political discourse is not only discouraged but codified as illegal. Ana chose philosophy as the second half to her double major for similar reasons.

Ana shares her family’s commitments with her brother. But it’s obvious that love and pride are what brings her to work.

“If she says to me, ‘I want to go to the movies tonight, Mom,’ then she can go,” Dania says.

But typically Ana doesn’t go to the movies. She’d rather be there at the restaurant, helping the family.

Manny, too.

While many of their college classmates are at fraternity parties or lying around their dorm rooms, the siblings are at Havana Carolina, late into the night.

Havana Carolina Restaurant October 2019

Havana Carolina has real Cuban food, made by Cuban hands, in downtown Concord.

Smack in the middle of Union Street in historic downtown Concord, in the old Belk’s department store, the restaurant is at the end of a long hallway past an old-fashioned burger joint and next to a hipster beer shop.

Inside, the soft glow of neon plays host to a steady but erratic shower of colorful, blinking lights off old movie posters, vintage Bacardi ads, and plenty of red, white, and blue. On the television, instead of Sportscenter or CNN, a plaza in downtown Havana.

One of the true Cuban food experiences the family brings to its guests is ropa vieja—Cuba’s unofficial national dish. Late night drinkers eat Cuban sandwiches in Miami. In Cuba, in the family home, they eat ropa vieja.

“When people ask me, ‘What is ropa vieja?’, I tell them it’s shredded beef cooked in tomato sauce and unique spices,” Ana says.

At the end of her description, she reveals its odd translation.

“If you translate it into English, it means ‘old clothes,’” she often explains to bewildered diners.

ropa vieja

Ropa vieja

Similarly, when translating ropa vieja’s cousin, vaca frita, into English, one comes up with a glancing description.

“Fried cow.”

“People ask me if it’s the whole cow,” Manny laughs.

In defense of Cabarrus County, they are in pig-pickin’ country.

A traditional Cuban meal starts with bread, sometimes accompanied by a garlicky-tomato relish. Congri, or black beans and rice, is the traditional base for classics like ropa vieja, vaca frita, and Manny’s favorite—the Churrasco Cubano skirt steak with chimichurri sauce.

“We put garlic in everything,” Manny says.

I showed up for lunch on a recent Wednesday. Old, broken-in, comfy T-shirt is more appropriate for describing ropa vieja. Sliced brisket is simmered in tomato sauce, garlic, and onion until it’s shreddable. The high-fat content of the brisket helps it remain silky tender. Dania’s addition of green olives to the braise is a carryover from their B&B in Matanzas.

Fried plantains are served either sweet or green, accompanied by a mojo sauce — a sweet, mellow garlic oil.

I sat down with the family and we talked openly about their lives. Tears rolled past their smiles, and they were finally ready to share their story.

Havana Carolina restaurant story October 2019

Manny, Dania, and Ana keep Havana Carolina going.

In the wake of the accident, the restaurant, friends, employees became a part of the family’s grieving process. Now, the business has found its footing and many of them have moved on to other things. But if she needs them, Dania says many are only a phone call away.

“They still love the place. And I love that,” Dania says, smiling.

A Cuban employee, Suri, has been here since day one and often prepares the ropa vieja. Oldi and his sister Loly arrived in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. Their mother, Elsie, moved with them to the U.S., not long after Idael’s accident, and soon they all found work at Havana Carolina.

Oldi and Loly stayed to work in the restaurant after their mother moved to Virginia. Now, Oldi is one of Dania’s trusted cooks, and Loly is lead server.

Tiffany, a server, has her first ever job at Havana Carolina.

Knowing full-well the answer, Dania asks Tiffany what she does on her days off.

“I’m here,” Tiffany laughs. “I’m here on Friday nights.”

Nobody wants to miss the weekend nights. That’s when Havana Carolina really brings the Caribbean to downtown Concord. Former employees — still very much a part of the Havana Carolina family— make frequent appearances.

Ana, a professionally trained dancer, and the Havana Girls teach free salsa lessons on Friday nights while a DJ plays today’s top hits, old-school salsa, and other Latin beats. A late-night menu with snacks and sandwiches is available until 2 a.m.

Saturday nights, a live band plays from 7 to 11 p.m., and tends to attract a more traditional (read: post-millennial) crowd.

“It’s like a family,” Dania says.

Dania credits her employees. Manny and Ana remember that tough time after losing their father a little differently.

“People thought we were going to close — give up,” Ana says.

Turning and grabbing her mother by the shoulders, Ana continues. “And so this woman right here, she did amazing. You have to say this in there — if she didn’t have the strength she had, these lives we’re leading today, just couldn’t happen,” says Ana.

“It was basically on my mom. I was in school. My sister was in high school,” Manny says.

“It was my senior year,” Ana says, and then trails off.

Havana Carolina story October 2019

People flock to Havana Carolina on Friday and Saturday nights for laughs and dancing. (Photo contributed by Havana Carolina)

Written on the front of the menu are the words, “Donde come uno, comen dos.” Translated, it’s “Two can eat as one.”

But just like ropa vieja, English words don’t do justice to the spirit beneath.

Dania explains it her way.

“In Cuba, we don’t have big meals. We don’t have too much food. In our house, in our country, if you have something to eat, you share. It doesn’t matter if you have only beans — when one can eat, two can share the plate.”

At Havana Carolina Restaurant & Bar, people still believe in love, while three do the work of four — and the American dream lives on.

Ben Jarrell is a writer and former cook in Charlotte who’s worked in restaurants from San Francisco to The Bahamas. His stories have appeared in the Charlotte Observer, Charlotte magazine, Eater Charleston, CharlotteFive, and other publications.

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