Empanadas, tequila, meatballs, oh my

Downtown Carrboro is known for its food. An array of local, unique restaurants, food trucks and dives has given a modern, updated feel to the former milltown.

Ken Yowell, owner of calavela empanada and tequila bar, located in the same building as the Hampton Inn at 570 E. Main Street, wanted a piece of that modernized pie, and he got it.

Empanadas and tequila are the stars of the show at calavela. The bar and restaurant offers a seasonally changing cocktail list and 13 varieties of empanadas.
Empanadas and tequila are the stars of the show at calavela. The bar and restaurant offers a seasonally changing cocktail list and 13 varieties of empanadas

Downtown Carrboro is known for its food. An array of local, unique restaurants, food trucks and dives has given a modern, updated feel to the former milltown.

Ken Yowell, owner of calavela empanada and tequila bar, located in the same building as the Hampton Inn at 570 E. Main Street, wanted a piece of that modernized pie, and he got it.

Yowell moved to North Carolina from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2000 to work as opening general manager for the Flying Saucer bar and pub in downtown Raleigh.

“I had originally planned on staying here in North Carolina for about a year but ended up loving North Carolina so much I just stayed,” Yowell said.  “Since that time, I’ve worked in everything from Irish pubs to nightclubs and everything in between.”

That experience in a variety of fields gave Yowell plenty of concepts to pull from and a good idea for what he wanted to do once he had the opportunity to open his own place. Turns out, the biggest influence for his restaurant and bar didn’t come from one of his many jobs in the industry. Rather, the idea originated from a small restaurant Yowell and his buddies came across on a trip to New York.

“It was something that no one was doing here at the time: empanadas,” Yowell said. “It’s a food that every culture has its own version of and we really felt like people would love it.”

To bring a more modern feel to the small speakeasies you would find in Mexico City, Yowell said he added cocktails using only the freshest ingredients and a list of mezcal and tequila that would satisfy any tequila aficionado’s desires.

Yowell opened the first calavela in downtown Raleigh back in September 2011. The restaurant and bar was welcomed so much, that Yowell met with now partners Hans Huang and Stephen Votino to open the newest calavela in Carrboro.

What was once “the little empanada place on the corner” in downtown Raleigh is now the latest addition to the 300 E. Main development that has sprouted new businesses like Yesteryear Brewery, Hickory Tavern and Cameron’s in recent years.

Patti Benedict, a partner with Main Street Properties, said calavela fits right in with the existing and upcoming restaurants in downtown Carrboro.

“It’s a nice blend with the great restaurants we already have in 300 East Main and that we already have in downtown Carrboro,” Benedict said. “It’s a nice addition of new concepts that we don’t already have.“

But Yowell isn’t settling for just one restaurant and bar in the 570 E. Main Street building. He plans to open the Shoppe Bar and Meatball Kitchen in the next few weeks.

Similar to calavela, The Shoppe Bar and Meatball Factory makes one menu item the star and pairs it with a great cocktail and spirits selection.

“The difference is where at calavela tequila is king; at The Shoppe craft beers and bourbons reign,” Yowell said.

To make things even a little more convenient, the restaurants share a kitchen. Yowell says calavela is currently open for dinner only, but he says the plan is to have calavela from 4p.m. to 2a.m., seven days a week, by April. The Shoppe will open at the same time, staying open until midnight on weeknights and 2a.m. on the weekends.

If early reviews are any indication of what’s to come, calavela may be in Carrboro to stay.

“I think it’s an awesome idea with a really cool atmosphere” said UNC senior economics major Jack Barnett. “It just fits in so well with the unique and different food and drink options down here. You’ve got to have something that people haven’t seen before, and they have that.”

Yowell couldn’t be happier to be a new part of the developing downtown Carrboro scene.

I had been looking over Carrboro for a while and when a friend told me about 300 East Main Street, I jumped at the chance,” Yowell said.  “We couldn’t be happier.  The neighbors have been so welcoming and supportive that there is no doubt that this is where we want to be.”

Empanadas and tequila are the stars of the show at calavela. The bar and restaurant offers a seasonally changing cocktail list and uses only the freshest ingredients.

Author of the article

Patrick is a UNC-CH senior journalism major from Winston-Salem serving as a writer-photographer for the Carrboro Commons.