"What do you want to know?" he asks.
Tell me your story.
"I escaped Cuba in 1962, at 19 years old," he begins. "I was picked up by a submarine; it was when they had the blockade. It scared the shit out of me! Have you ever seen a submarine surface? We were lost for about a week in the Gulf of Mexico, three of us on a raft.
"I established myself in New York. My main job was in contracting, then I retired. I came here [to Durham] for retirement and I do more work here now than before.
"[In Cuba,] it was a political situation. I opened my mouth too many times the wrong way. That's why I left. I'll never go back, I don't have nobody there. See, my father and mother, they came from Spain during the Franco revolution when they were young. I was born in Cuba, the first generation.
"But I remember Havana completely. Good times in Havana. Oh, the casinos! All that. It's all frozen in time."
In a nutshell, that is the life of Alfonso Sama, owner of Carmen's Cuban Café in Morrisville. But to put Señor Sama in any sort of shell would be a mistake.
First, he might beat you up. (This is not true, but he could.) Though retired and in his mid-60s, he is more muscled than your average rottweiler, and his uniform of white V-neck T-shirt, faded blue jeans and gold chain only emphasizes his magnetism. He deftly runs the joint, embracing regulars as they stroll past the bar, passing out high-fives and handshakes to some, nods to others.
Second, he's lived more in four decades than most people in their entire lives. He's smart, well-traveled, outspoken. In the 1970s, he owned three of New York's most notorious nightclubs: After Hours, Crisco Disco and La Cobra. He's had five children and four wives—one Chinese and one Moroccan—from whom he learned much about food and culture.
Ask him about his tattoos, and he'll open a discourse on Indonesian mysticism. Mention ceviche, and he'll tell you it originated in Peru, and when your friend at the table—who by the way happens to resemble Kim Basinger in her L.A. Confidential years—mentions she's been to Peru, he'll speak at length on the ancient city of Nasca and the etchings on its mountains that can only be seen from the air. "I'm Aquarius, Scorpio rising. I like all that mystic thing," he laughs.
But third and most important, Sama has brought authentic Cuban food and salsa rhythms to the Triangle precisely when we're most open to learning about them. Latin culture is thriving, as any local newspaper will tell you, and if the dance floor at Carmen's this past Tuesday night was any indication, salsa isn't just tropical anymore.
Though the dancing at the Touch Ultra Lounge inside Carmen's is in itself enough to draw a crowd, the food and drink don't hurt: They're fantastic.
"This is 'down-home' cooking, no fancy sauces here," says Sama. "We do the papa rellenos here, we do the croquettes here [and] everything else ... ropa vieja. I get the meat, we cook it, we shred it, you know? We could buy it frozen but you don't want that."
An ideal dinner for four at Carmen's would sound something like this: To drink, four mojitos (and then four more: ask for Josh Fritz, the bar manager, who muddles the mint for nearly a minute, and then adds a secret ingredient). To start, pass around tostones (mashed green plantains, twice-fried and salted, though you'll want to add a touch more) and empanadas (get the chicken, with Sama's magnificent hot sauce). To cleanse, try a ceviche (chilled raw seafood marinated in lime) for something light before the entrée.
Then, someone must order the delicious ropa vieja, a traditional shaved beef, Sama's favorite (my Southern friend aptly compared it to a Brunswick stew). The fish-lover at your table can set his mouth aflame with the red snapper, the pork-eater can boast how tender is her slow-roasted lechon asado, and the vegetarian can balance his savory, salty beans and rice with sweet plantains. (Note: The red beans are cooked with pork for taste, the black with onion.) With each entrée, Carmen's offers a choice of white or yellow rice, black or red beans, and yuca or plantain. Everyone should get something different and share, to taste them all. At our table, white rice plus red beans plus platanos maduros was the winning combination.
The only slight disappointment was the skimpy ceviche. Though I found the cold citrusy liquid delicious and the presentation in a frosted glass lovely, my companion and I had to play dueling forks to locate the few pieces of seafood swimming in a mound of onion and peppers. (It was simply so good we wanted more.)
If you are dining alone and choose the yuca over the plantains, let me emphasize this: You still must try the platanos maduros for dessert. Sama has an eye for picking plantains at just the right moment. "I buy them green when they come in from the farmers' market, I keep them in my house outside, or over here, and I know when they are going to become ripe. It's a big process. I tell you it's not easy—in Miami you go outside and just get them."
And if perchance you need to dine with 200 of your closest colleagues, Carmen's is still your place. "We do catering to Duke, Glaxo, IBM," says Sama. "I have this big space here, they come and do presentations, you know? That just fell into my lap. I don't advertise, I am just very busy over here. I guess it's because [we're] unique; everybody's tired of eating Chinese or Quizno's."
The décor at Carmen's is simple and festive, with old-style Havana posters in the dining room and enormous gilded mirrors and leather couches in the bar. The posters are surely a nod to Carmen herself. "Carmen is my mother," explains Sama. "She showed me how to cook a long time ago." After he lost his father at age 7, Sama began tagging along with his mother to work, where she cooked in the kitchens of wealthy Havanans. He watched closely and learned her trade little by little.
"We do everything with her recipes. She's [been] dead a long time; she lived with me in New York and then she moved to Miami. She was about 89 when she died. She lived a very full life.
"All my family, they're from Spain. All my seasoning, it's from Spain because originally the Cubans, you know, they took from the Spanish culture." Carmen's will make a paella for two if given an hour's notice (and $39.95); in wintertime, the menu features many more Spanish dishes (Sama recommends the beef soup in particular).
The decor of the dance floor is sparser, but once the dancers arrive, they are the decoration. A dance school, Mambo Dinamico, sets up shop weekdays in Carmen's separate dance room. Their Web site (www.mambodinamico.com) goes to great lengths to make it clear that it's not a meat market, just good fun, "with some of the nicest people in the Triangle. Salsa After Work Tuesday has a relaxed environment with no cliques or fashion shows . . . early enough so you can make it to work the next morning." The $15 beginner lessons start at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, and the doors open at 8:30 to the general public, with the dance floor packed by 9 p.m. (Carmen's offers a small dinner buffet to those taking lessons.) Natalia Weedy, our young Chilean-American instructor, is kindly patient and has a quick smile, though she's just as quick to remind us, "No marching!" and "Keep your knees together, it's just more feminine."
It is rumored that Saturday, Aug. 18, will be a big salsa night at Carmen's. Will Señor Sama be out there? "Oh yeah. I can dance. Salsa, merengue. I'll show you. It's a promise."
According to Sama, he was born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon. In the tattoo covering his right bicep, a dragon is sitting in the Third Eye; it's controlling the universe. The tattoo on his left arm is Indonesian. "The warriors used to use this, it's like a dragon dog, for protection of the evil and their enemies. And this is fire, that's my sign, the fire sign. You know the fire sign? I'm the fire."
Of that I have no doubt.
On to the next link in the Food Chain. Where are you going to send me to eat? I ask Sama. My friend and I, where are we going to go next?
He rears back and laughs, a gleam in his eye. "My house? I cook."
Tempting. We'll see.