Havana Road Cuban Café has been open for less than two years, long enough to gain a following in downtown Towson simply on the merits of its Cuban cuisine.
But for owner and chef Marta Inés Quintana, the restaurant, located at 8 W. Pennsylvania Ave., is about more than food. It's a chance for area residents to experience a bit of culture that few truly understand.
"I was born in Guantanamo," she said. "The first reaction is oh, al Queda, but I tell them I am Guantanamo.
"I am everything beautiful that Guantanamo has, from food to culture to music to artists, and I help them see Cuba in a different way," she said. "Not just a communist regime, the Castro revolution, an al Queda naval base, but a country that is very rich in its food and culture and arts, and it has been for centuries."
And while words can go a long way to correcting such prejudices, Quintana's method is perhaps more effective — top-notch food.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland has nominated Havana Road as one of Maryland's Favorite New Restaurants, a contest for which voting ends on March 9.
Additionally, the Cubano sandwich at Havana Road won Best Sandwich in Baltimore Magazine's 2011 Best of Baltimore list.
"It is to die for," Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said. "I'm from Miami. I grew up with Cubans down there, and I loved it. The food is fabulous. I had that sandwich yesterday, and it's a touch of heaven."
Hafford, a friend of Quintana and a frequent patron of the restaurant, was integral in getting Quintana to use the space.
Quintana's company — Havana Road Artisanal Foods — began in November 2009 as a retail line sold exclusively at Whole Foods groceries. It soon expanded to a wholesale line, and Quintana began to search for a commercial kitchen to operate out of.
Hafford suggested the empty storefront on Pennsylvania Avenue across from Towson Commons. Quintana pushed back.
"I said, 'It's not a commercial kitchen,' " Quintana said. "She said to make it one, so we did."
They eventually moved into the space, but from the start, the empty front portion of the restaurant tantalized her.
"I kept looking out here at this real estate and said, 'Oh wow, do I dare?' " she said.
From there, Havana Road Cuban Café was born. The idea was initially to have a limited menu derived from the wholesale line, but all while keeping the food true to her roots.
"These are my mother's recipes, my grandmother's, my great-grandmother's, my father's," she said. "(I began) knowing that with my mother's recipes and my mom in the kitchen and my family's support, they would keep our food down-home Cuban.
"Whole Foods set the bar for the quality of our food, so all of our meats are natural, grass-fed. Our chicken is Halal, no preservatives. We shop daily. We don't use frozen products, so our food is always fresh, and people taste that."
Since the restaurant opened in September 2010, Quintana said they've been going strong and trying to tap into the many demographics that exist in Towson.
Havana Road Cuban Café provides lunch and dinner deliveries, as well as a blossoming catering service, and has worked to provide carryout options for parents to bring home for the entire family.
Students pour in for their happy hour on Thursday and Friday evenings, as do local residents for whom the aromas of Cuba conjure up strong memories.
"I get a lot of couples who had been to Cuba back in the '50s," Quintana said. "They love to talk to me about their experiences in Cuba."
Additionally, Spanish classes from local schools take trips to the restaurant when it fits the curriculum. In Quintana, anyone that comes through the door has a willing participant in talk of her native land.
"I love to tell people about my country and the diverse culture that we live in," Quintana said.
"This is definitely not a flat world anymore," she said. "Any given day here at Havana Road, you'll have a multitude of cultures in this room, and they're all getting along, eating together — and food is the common denominator that breaks down all barriers."
Visit http://www.marylandrestaurants.com/gala to vote for Havana Road Cuban Cafe as Maryland's Favorite New Restaurant. Voting ends on Friday, March 9.