Sitting across from Marta Quintana can be a lot to process at one time. She’s a whirlwind of information and she grabs you with her personality. Then you recognize that you are not just talking to the restaurant owner and Executive Chef of Havana Road Cafe, you’re talking to someone who is living the American dream and she’s is very thankful for her father’s courage in securing that dream by bringing her family to America. If you look at the picture on the cafe’s logo, it is a picture, taken by her father, of the road left behind as her family left Cuba.
As proud as she is of being an American, she is also equally proud of her Cuban heritage. Through her restaurant Havana Road Cafe, she hopes to bring awareness, saying, “Havana Road Cafe is not just about food. I was born in Guantanamo but I am a lot more than Al Qaeda and a naval base! I am food… I am culture… I am beauty. I am everything great that Cuba has to offer.”
Quintana has been cooking for a long time—she even catered her first wedding. She tells the story of how she went to the altar and said “I do” but had to rush back to get everything squared away for the reception. She cooked for family and friends primarily because her career was in corporate America, but it wasn’t until she was laid-off from her V.P. of Marketing job with a pharmaceutical company that she began to take a serious look at cooking as a profession. Thanks to the encouragement of her daughter who made Youtube videos of her cooking, Quintana began to get her second wind.
Havana Road Cafe serves authentic Cuban food, and if you think it seems like your mother is cooking in the kitchen it’s because Quintana’s mother really is cooking in the kitchen. According to Quintana, the recipes are those of her mother and her mother’s mother, and if you know anything about mothers, they want it done right.
Mojo is a big part of the Cuban culture. Quintana puts it this way: “Mojo is to Cubans like Old Bay is for crabs.” That descriptions flies very well in Maryland, where Old Bay is king, but essentially it means that it’s integral to Cuban cooking. It’s citrus, onions, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil and spices balanced correctly. You use it to dip your bread, pour it over salsa, and simmer meat when cooking.
Havana Road Cafe has a diverse patronage but make no mistake, they are heavily supported by the Latino community. The restaurant is located in a business district in Towson, Maryland and is a few short blocks from Towson University.
Some patrons of the cafe have a casual acquaintance with Cuban food like Cuban sandwiches via trips to Miami. At Havana Road Cafe, Cuban sandwiches are made by using the whole leg of pork. It is then slow cooked in mojo sauce and dry rub for hours. Quintana adds, “It’s all about the Mojo. So when you bite it, the pork is just silky and smooth and buttery and full of flavors and they fall in love with our Cubans!”
One of the mistakes that people make when coming to a Cuban restaurant is expecting to be served food similar to the Mexican culture’s. However, Quintana is quick to let you know that Mexican food is great, but it is different from Cuban food in that it’s typically hot while Cuban food is spicy.
MCCN’s visit included Ropa Vieja, a brisket simmered in white wine, tomato sauce and Cuban spices, served with black beans, plantains and rice. Dessert included Cuban Mango Flan. Enjoy this with a shot of Cuban coffee or Cuban con Leche!
Marta Quintana has a line of products available at Whole Foods. For more information about her Havana Road sauces and vegan options, see the following link: http://www.havanaroad.com/artisanalfoods.html
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