You’ll know you’ve arrived at El Puro when you spot the red ’55 Ford Crown Victoria out front. The Pérez family, who opened the Cuban restaurant on South Boulevard in November, owned a ’56 model in their native Cuba. They sold it seven years ago and used the money to come to the U.S., where they bought Havana Carolina Restaurant & Bar in Concord. This ’55 model represents the glamour and elegance of 1950s Cuba. It’s also a symbol of the family’s perseverance.
The restaurant’s name is a tribute to their patriarch, Idael, who died in 2017 at age 44. In Cuba, “El Puro” is a common nickname for father. Just two months after the Pérezes purchased Havana Carolina, Idael was hit by a truck whose driver fell asleep at the wheel on N.C. Highway 73 near the Lincoln County Airport. His son, Manny, 18 at the time, was a freshman at Gaston College. Along with his sister, Ana, then 16, and mother, Dania, he fought to keep the restaurant open when friends and family assumed it would close.
But the Pérezes pressed on. Manny transferred to UNC Charlotte and worked at Havana Carolina on nights and weekends. Dania oversaw the kitchen, and Ana led their social media efforts. Business was steady, and in July 2020, they signed the lease on El Puro.
Over the next 16 months, they transformed the former steakhouse into a restaurant right out of pre-revolutionary Havana, as it was before Castro stripped it of glamour. The 150-seat dining room has dark wood tables and leather booths, Tiffany-style lamps, and a neon sign above a stage that reads, “La vida es un carnaval,” from a song by Cuban musician Celia Cruz.
The bar serves $14 mojitos, daiquiris, and piña coladas, which you can sip from a barstool while you listen to Latin jazz or at your table while you peruse the menu. Start with an order of Puriche ($20), Dania’s version of ceviche, with seasonal fish, onion, sweet ají cachucha peppers, and lime. For something a bit heartier but equally complex, try the Queso Frito ($18), four slabs of mild yet slightly tangy fried cheese topped with rum-soaked raisins.
The entrées are reminiscent of Havana Carolina’s, with lots of slow-cooked meats and plenty of garlic, cumin, and cilantro. The Masitas de la Loma ($28) are a pile of fried pork chunks slathered in mojo sauce that arrives on a smoking tabletop roasting oven called La Caja China. The Ropa Vieja ($30), “old clothes” in Spanish, is strands of shredded beef served with vegetables and baked potatoes. Most entrées are big enough to feed two people and come with a choice of two sides. We recommend the Maduros (sweet plantains) and Congrí (Cuban black beans and rice).
The dessert menu has just three items, but El Puro gets each one right. The El Guayabero ($10) is a velvety guava cheesecake, and the Flan Kafe ($10) is a light caramel custard with a hint of coffee. If you order just one dessert, though, go with the Cimarrón ($10). The sweet Nutella mousse atop a layer of saltine crackers is a sublime yin-yang of flavor.
If you like to end your evening with a caffeine buzz, enjoy your dessert with some Cuban coffee. But if you prefer to get your caffeine jolt in the morning, visit La Ventanita, a walk-up window in front of the restaurant that serves Cuban coffee and pastries from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can also find a limited “Bites” menu with Empanadas ($3), Croquetas ($6), and a classic Cuban Sandwich ($12).
At press time, El Puro was open for lunch and dinner but planned to offer brunch in the coming months. Manny, who graduated from UNCC last year with a degree in finance, runs both of his family’s restaurants with the ease of someone much older than 23. You can usually spot him circulating El Puro’s dining room, chatting with the musicians and clearing plates. Dania continues to supervise the kitchen, while Ana greets guests at the hostess stand or sits at the bar with her laptop, catching up on schoolwork or updating their social media pages.
On your way out, you’ll see another phrase in neon beside the entrance. “Te quedarás porque te doy cariño” translates to “You will stay because I give you love.” It’s a lyric by Cuban singer Beny Moré—another tribute to Idael and his family’s resolve to bring his love of Cuban food and music to Charlotte.
5033 South Blvd.
8 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday
8 a.m.-12 a.m., Friday
11 a.m.-12 a.m., Saturday
11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
El Puro has live music every night of the week. Check their social media pages for the weekly lineup.