La Isla. It is now internationally famous for winning a throwdown against celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a stuffed French toast war.
But we never went there for breakfast.
No, we went later in the day for what was usually a late lunch. There, we'd while away the afternoon, sitting in a sunny window, sipping on Cokes with limes and munching on Cuban Sandwiches.
A Cuban sandwich is a curious thing and for the pork averse, something to be avoided. Her Imperial Majesty and I have no such aversion and readily chowed down on La Isla's signature sandwich: slow roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, a pickle, mustard and the magic mojo sauce. Served Panini style, grilled and pressed, it's a magically crunchy mouthful of happiness that works so beautifully at so many levels.
Sadly – or not – we moved from suburban New York City to points south and lost that slice of culinary culture. The Cuban sandwich was merely a fond foodie memory from one of the epicenters of the Foodie Universe.
So maybe the New York Times was right in naming Durham one of the 41 places in the world everybody needs to visit during 2011. I certainly need to, probably weekly, if only to go to The Old Havana Sandwich shop on East Main.
One recent Saturday found us sitting by a sunny window, breakfasting on Cuban sandwiches and slow roasted plantains, chasing the whole meal with a steaming cup of café con leche.
It was crowded, filled with happy people enjoying the fare. At the Old Havana Sandwich shop, they do serve variants of the traditional Cuban sandwich. We didn't try them but you can. We stuck to the basics: a Cuban sandwich, roasted plantains and for dessert, a guava pastry. Everything was marvelous.
Guglehopf; the pork is locally raised. With a wide open kitchen, what you see is what they serve and what they serve is magical. Everything about it is authentic and real.
Maybe Hoboken is 500 miles away and Cuba is even farther and more problematic. But as long as we have the Old Havana Sandwich Shop, we don't really need either.
Old Havana Sandwich Shop
310 East Main Street
Cuisine: Cuban sandwiches to die for
Atmosphere: Crowded with local foodies who know
Noise level: Quick service crowded
Open: MON. – FRI 7:30 AM – 5:30 PM; SAT 9 AM – 4PM
Other: Parking is problematic.
We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary***** Excellent**** Above average*** Average** Fair*