Breakfast in Union City

It’s been a long winter, intruding on Spring. And the semester has been more than busy. So Liza and I started Spring Break early, rented a car, and sought out the landscapes of the Hudson Valley, favorites of ours, just for a change. We did not stay overnight, but the car was not due back until the following day at noon.

So what can we do in just one morning with a car in the city? Escape the city for breakfast. And I mean escape the brunch plague. Yes, New York City has thousands upon thousands of restaurants, but it seems all of them, at least in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, have one menu on weekend mornings: some 07variation of Eggs Benedict, waffles, pancakes, and your choice of a Mimosa or Bloody Mary. Oh, and if you happen to wake up early (as I do), you have to wait until about 11:00 a.m. to make your selection. I like to have breakfast when I wake up, and by midday I’m ready for a real meal, not eggs on English muffins or something covered in syrup.

With a car, the choice is clear. Burrow into the Lincoln Tunnel and come out in Union City hoping for a breakfast we have not had this long winter: a Cuban breakfast. You know what I’m talking about: café con leche, tostada cubana (buttered, crisp, well pressed), and huevos fritos (not runny, with that whitish layer on the yolks that you get by splashing the cooking oil on top while you fry them). We were also hoping for a side of either chorizo, or even better, croqueticas de jamón. 006

In an earlier post, I asked readers of Cuban New Yorker if there are any Cuban places in New York that serve cafeteria fare, because that’s what you are looking for when you go out for a Cuban breakfast. No one suggested a place in the city. So I went online: “Cuban cafeterias in Union City, NJ.” I was referred to Cuban restaurants in Union City. I scanned through the results and saw one with the name “Latin American Restaurant,” evocative of the cafeteria in Miami with the same name. And it opens at 9:00 a.m. every day. That’s what I’m talking about.

Since I do not usually have a car in New York, I do not, regretfully, get out to Cubanland in Jersey I often as I would like. So I had to depend on the GPS to direct me to 4317 Bergenline Avenue. But the expedition was worth it, as I realized as soon as I drove up to the place. There were signs on the restaurant’s exterior advertising its offerings, including pan con bistec, sandwich cubano,

001and, most importantly, desayuno completo, that is, cafeteria fare.  As it turned out, we could get both chorizo and croqueticas. The croqueticas were atypically slender, but they were homemade, fried to order, and light and crispy. The eggs were perfect, as were the café con leche and the tostada.

???????????????????????????????That morning the restaurant was a one-woman operation: waitress, cook, and cashier all in one, which was not a problem since the place was not exactly crowded at 9:00 a.m. (where did everyone go, to Manhattan for brunch?).  I did ???????????????????????????????not ask her name since she was initially a bit leery of us when she saw me taking pictures of the restaurant’s exterior. [Maybe sizing up someone’s place of business is not a good thing to do in Tony Soprano’s 003territory].  But after we started talking she told us she had arrived in Union City (and the U.S.) three years ago, after leaving Cuba through Mexico.

U.S. Census data show that the Cuban presence in Union City is declining, in both relative and absolute terms. The 2000 Census counted 10,296 persons of Cuban-origin or descent, the largest single Latino-origin group in Union City, but that was already a dwindling number in comparison to the 1970’s and 80’s. The most recent census (2010) found 7,510 persons claiming Cuban origin or descent, with Dominicans now the largest single Latino-origin group in the city (10,020).002

The figures also show that Union City remains a first-generation (immigrant) community for Cubans. Even as the numbers decline, Cuban-born persons continue to predominate among all persons of Cuban origin. In other words, the children of Cuban immigrants move out of Union City, with new arrivals from Cuba (the preparer of our fine breakfast is an example) replacing them. But they are not fully replacing them, since new immigrants from the island are likely to go to Florida, and so the community in Union City declines.

But Union City, and especially Bergenline Avenue, continues to bear the mark of what has been a premier community for Cubans in the U.S.  Fortunately, ethnic communities tend to outlive the immigrant generation, at least in terms of businesses catering to the group’s traditional consumption patterns, as evidenced by Little Italys everywhere and even Ybor City in Tampa. I hope so. I plan to go back to Union City for breakfast.

20 responses to “Breakfast in Union City

  1. Muy buen articulo te felicito por ir a mi ciudad. cuando quieras familiarizarte un poco mejor con la comunidad Cubana en Union City, mandame un email a: arnold@serafincigars.com, te explico como ir a Union City sin necesidad de un carro desde Manhattan estas a solo unos minutos, y a varios lugares Cubanos en Union City y West New York que te van a encantar!! Soy nacido y criado en esta ciudad, la cual quiero mucho y quiero que tengas la experiencia completa.

  2. You always make the reader feel he or she is with you in your outings. One can almost smell the cafè con leche and taste the croqueticas!

  3. Indeed, Bergenline Ave in Union City is not even the ghost of what it used to be. And neither is Latin America Cafeteria . In its prime the restaurant was always packed with mostly Cuban families, many from NYC, and it was twice as large.
    The last time I was there some years ago I didn’t recognized the place.
    I’m glad that you enjoyed your breakfast.
    There was a supermarket very near the restaurant where you asked the butcher for all the cuts that are part of us -palomilla, jarrete, lacón, etc. the last time I went the butchers didn’t know what I was talking about. What a pity!

    Saludos

  4. Estimado amigo, te perdiste junto con el tour del desayuno a la Funeraria de Morgado, donde velaron a mi padre, a mi tío, abuelo, abuela, etc, y a cuanto cubano se ha muerto en NJ. Queda entre la 43 y 44. Culturalmente, los cubanos, van a comer y tomar café al Latin American, mientras velan, más cuentos que velos, al muerto. También está el restaurante Las Palmas, del antíguo dueño de Mi Bandera, en Bergenline y la 62, hace esquina. El Latin American es el major.

  5. Enrique Fernandez

    Union City is a de rigueur pilgrimage for Cuban New Yorkers. However, the Cuban breakfast you describe is, I believe a Cuban-American breakfast. My tribal memory may be wrong, and if so please someone correct me, but Cuban breakfast as far as I know is cafe con leche y pan con mantquilla — what we here call Cuban toast. The other trimmings are enrichments of this side of the Florida Straits — in Miami you would also add grits. And the reason the listings are restaurants not cafeterias is that Stateside that word means a self-service eatery where you slide past the steam tables with your tray. In Miami, of course, the word means what it means in Spanish, a coffee-shop. As for Ybor City, that ethnic community left long ago, or was forced to leave by the disastrous urbanism of the ’60s and the equally disastrous turn of the cigar industry which ground a gorgeous craft to the ground unaware that the Cigar Aficionado era would eventually surface. There are those of us who reminisce about the original Silver Ring, Las Novedades, Cuervo’s, Alvarez, Los Helados, and Mercedes Cafeteria, which was an actual self-service Cafeteria. Sic transit.

    • Enrique, thank you for your comment. I am inclined to defer to you on food matters, and I think that you raise a good point as to what is a “Cuban” breakfast. I can only add that there are any number of Cuban consumption patters that may have changed due to U.S. influence before the Revolution, especially during the 1950s, “those American years,” as Cabrera Infante called that decade. The experience of this middle-class Havana kid may not be typical, but my usual breakfast before going to school during those days was café con leche, a slice of “American” white bread from the toaster, and bowl of Corn Flakes. But you are correct to call attention to what I referred to, perhaps too hastily, as a Cuban breakfast.
      On Ybor City. The hand rolled industry that flourished there from 1886 to the 1920’s always depended on the importation of clear Havana leaves from Cuba. The demise of that industry occurred much earlier than the 1960s and from forces external to the community. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. Tobacco Trust (made up of manufacturers who used domestic leaves) sought to choke Tampa by lobbying for the imposition of progressively higher tariffs on the importation of the leaves from Cuba. It reached a point in which importing the leaf became more expensive than importing a manufactured cigar from Cuba. Once that point was reached it was curtains for Ybor City, and the industry (and even many workers) returned to Cuba. Almost everything else (the mechanization of the industry and the cheapening of the product) followed from that basic economic reality.

  6. I’ve been told that the prices in NY are much higher than in Miami. A breakfast special (6 am to 12 noon) at the Latin American cafeteria-restaurant at 10700 Coral Way (33165) near the FIU Modesto Maidique Campus, which includes 2 eggs (fried or scrambled) ham, bacon or sausages, potatoes (red, hash browns, or french fries) or grits (harina) and tostadas cubanas with cafe con leche, all for $3.99 — How much would a breakfast like that cost at the Latin American in Union City, N.J.? Additional breakfast sides like croquetas de jamon and empanadas are available at $1.00 and papa rellena at $1.60. The full executive lunch special at $5.95 is one of the best deals in town.

    • José, I have not priced this out entirely, but I would say that the difference between New Jersey and Manhattan in terms of prices (on anything) is much greater than whatever difference there may be between New Jersey and Miami.

      • As a transplant who dearly misses the food, I’d gladly pay a premium for a cafe con leche and a tostada. Unfortunately, Cuban bread, in all it’s airy glory, is nowhere to be found on the island of Manhattan. If I could get a cafecito proper, I think I might just explode with joy. Should you discover any of these, please, pretty please, share the location.

  7. I might be getting little off topic but with Cuba mentioned I need comment. With the sequester now cutting off many programs I want to know why the U.S. taxpayer has to continue to pay for the entitlements that are given to Cubans entering the U.S. legally or illegally? It is costing the U.S. taxpayer millions of dollars a year because Cubans migrating here after one year are granted residency and are eligable for Social Security benetits, medicare and other entitlements the Republicans want to cut from our own American citizens. Politics and the Cuban Adjustment Act is South Florida must be brought to to public eye.

    • I’ve never understood the anti-immigrant argument that immigrants are charity cases that depend upon the largesse of citizens. My understanding of entitlements (especially Social Security) is that you are entitled to them because as a productive worker one pays into the system in order to have a measure of security and health care in one’s old age. And all productive workers pay into it, not just citizens. In the case of Cubans I would argue that their contributions over the past half century to not only entitlements but also to GDP through their labor and entrepreneurship (not to mention their historical value to a hostile U.S. policy towards Cuba) has made them a very good investment on the part of the U.S. government, more than “paying for themselves” several times over.

  8. And the old fleeing from political persecution argument is null and void since thousands of Cubans travel back and forth to visit relatives and friends.

    • On the Cuban Adjustment Act (which is what you are referring to here), you are largely right, except that Cubans can enter the U.S. and eventually be granted U.S. residency without having to declare themselves in need of political asylum. The Act only requires them to be Cubans, not refugees. So essentially we are holding Cuban arrivals to a standard of political persecution that the Act does not stipulate. I presented my views on this topic in an op-ed piece in the Miami Herald last year (March 12, 2012, I believe).

  9. There’s a place you have to try…’Las Palmas’ 6153 Bergenline Ave, West New York. You’ll thank me. Disfurtalo!

  10. The majority of the residents of Union City today are Mexicans (most still eluding the statistical radar). A brief walk down Bergenline is all that is required to verify this, however: not a single Cuban face is seen for blocks. As if exile were not sufficiently dislocative, we who have lived here for more than 40 years must now accept the fact that through some trick of magical realism our place of refuge has now become Nueva Puebla. There are now more taquerías in Union City than Cuban fondas. In the store window of one of these I recently saw a sign which read: “Se solicita a tortillera con experiencia”. That is a sociological treatise in 10 words or less.

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