Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Fritas Magician: Cuban New Yorker Visits Miami

We love it, we hate it, but it is hard to ignore it. For the 1.78 million Cuban Americans, Miami is not just any place. It’s where a majority of us lives and the one U.S. metropolitan area where, as one writer once put it, “Cubans have captured the atmosphere of the city.”  For better or worse, what happens in Miami defines the Cuban presence in the United States. And it’s where many former Cuban New Yorkers now live.

I lived in Miami until I moved to New York two years ago (and for 32 of the 52 years I have lived in this country), and I am now, as many Cubans do, visiting. I am sure that in a future blog I will inflict upon the readers of CNY some oh-so-serious socio-political analysis of the changes I am seeing in la capital del exilio. But for now, the subject is fritas.

It would be too simplistic to translate fritas as Cuban hamburgers. They look like hamburgers, but the meat inside the bun has chorizo, mixed in with beef and who knows what else. Grilled onions and crispy shoestring potatoes are also inside the bun, but no lettuce and tomato, consistent with the tendency for Cuban (indeed, Caribbean) food to exclude uncooked ingredients.

Fritas are part of what we can call Cuban cafeteria fare, along with sandwiches cubanos, medianoches, croquetas (preferably made of ham), papas rellenas, pastelitos (beef, cheese, guava, coconut) and the like. Food to go, food on the run, usually accompanied by a milk shake or a tropical fruit juice, served by places that are frequently little more than drive-ups, open 24 hours, and especially popular late at night.

In the early days of Cuban Miami, El Morro Castle, on N.W. 7th Street, or Badia’s on S.W. 8th Street and in Hialeah, were popular purveyors of cafeteria fare. La Palma on S.W. 8th Street is now probably the most popular of this type of establishment. One of the reasons for the success of the Sergio’s chain in Miami is that it combines cafeteria food with a menu of “regular” Cuban food (BTW, I vote for the pan con bistec at Sergio’s as the best in Miami).

Fritas are not found in all Cuban cafeterias, perhaps because they require a more elaborate preparation than most cafeteria fare. So specialized frita places arose in Miami, such as El Rey de las Fritas and an establishment, now long gone, called El Palacio de las Fritas.

Ropa vieja, black beans, picadillo, arroz con pollo, and other Cuban restaurant items are not among the things I miss most about Miami because I can find reasonably good Cuban restaurants in New York. But I have not yet encountered any true Cuban cafeterias in New York, much less fritas, at least not in Manhattan. Admittedly, I have yet to troll New Jersey or the outer boroughs searching for them [any leads?].  This is why the Cuban food items I miss most are pastelitos, croquetas, medianoches, and, especially, fritas. They are right up there with the beach and The Beach on the Miami most-missed list (local politicians and expressway traffic did not make the cut).

When my children were small and I was not too preoccupied with my weight, some 25 years ago, I had already decided what was the best frita place in Miami: a small place on S.W. 8th street not far from my Coral Gables home, El Mago de

las Fritas, where Ortelio, el mago himself, would do his magic behind a counter with stools and with only a few tables. Back then, the fritas sold for one dollar, $1.25 with cheese.

It remained for many years one of my favorite haunts in Miami. Not only were the fritas the best, but there was something about the place. Ortelio would greet you personally and tell you how he learned to make fritas in his hometown of Placetas in central Cuba. I would run into friends at the counter. And then there

Ortelio (El Mago)

was the ambivalent nomenclature. Ortelio was Ortelio to some and El Mago to others. And the place itself is known to everyone, and appears in the menu, as El Mago de las Fritas, but the sign outside says El Mago de la Frita (singular).

I had not been to El Mago in a few years when, in October 2010, the magician’s place made the national news: on a day trip to Miami, President Obama decided he had to have one of Ortelio’s fritas. Reporters and Secret Service agents invaded the tiny place while Obama had a frita, washed down by what looks in a photo like a Materva.

The President leaving El Mago with a Materva in hand. The framed picture hangs on the wall of the establishment.

As soon as I arrived in Miami this summer I headed for El Mago to see what has changed. I found that everything and nothing has changed. The most notable change is that Ortelio’s daughter has taken an active role in managing the place. She told us her name is Marta. But no, wait, everyone was calling her Belkys. She admitted she is Marta AND Belkys. The tradition of ambivalent names continues at El Mago.

Ortelio’s daughter Marta . . . or Belkys . . .

 Marta/Belkys tells us that El Mago now has a website and a facebook page and participated in the 2011 South Beach Wine and Food Festival’s Burger Bash, where they turned out 2,500 fritas. El Mago has been featured in eating guides, such as Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are, and there is a ZAGAT-rated sign on the front window. Pictures of the Presidential visit fill the walls, and the motto on the glossy business card reads: “Good enough for the President of the USA.”

Another framed picture on the wall: the President, cash in hand, ordering his frita. With or without cheese? The Secret Service guy stationed in the kitchen making sure the papitas are just right . . .

Fortunately and not surprisingly, the only thing that has changed about the fritas is the price: regular fritas are $3.50, with cheese $3.75 (choice of Swiss or American). El Mago has added two additional options: with egg ($4.50) and a double frita for $5.50.

Even with the price increase, the fritas are worth every penny. The success of El Mago’s fritas was never in the patty itself but in three key elements: the bread (essentially a soft Cuban bread in the shape of a bun), the potatoes (homemade crunchy little shavings fried fresh everyday), and the special sauce in which Ortelio grills the fritas. Most frita places use regular hamburger buns and factory-made shoestring potatoes out of a can.

After I exchanged greetings and memories with Ortelio, Liza and I ordered two fritas each (I ordered one of my fritas with cheese). To drink, I ordered what I always ordered at El Mago: homemade fresh watermelon juice, and Liza went

for a mango milkshake. Everything was as good as I remembered. What I did not remember was that the flan, also made at El Mago, is among the best in Miami. My memory was jogged when we ordered one to share: just the right texture, caramel-y, and not too sweet.

The flan, café, and cortadito

I left my cell number with Ortelio so that he could pass it on to a couple of friends I used to see at the counter and who still, he told me, frequent the place.

On my way out I scanned the sayings and tidbits of advice that Orteli0 has placed in frames on the wall behind the counter. One of them reads (my translation): “If you like the food, tell everyone you know. If you don’t like it, tell El Mago.”

So here it is mago, I’m telling everyone I know, and then some.

El Mago de las Fritas

5828 S.W. 8th Street

West Miami, FL 33144


Monday through Saturday 8:00 am – 8:00 pm

Rumba, Race, and Identity in Central Park

I heard it as soon as we headed west from the Bethesda Fountain. There was no mistaking its origins: the layered multi-rhythmic percussion that is perhaps Cuba’s foremost contribution to world culture.  As we walked towards the Bow Bridge, the claves and the tumbadoras grew louder and I suddenly remembered: yes, of course, it’s Sunday, it’s summer, and so it’s Rumba in the park! It’s been around for so long that I thought it had already been relegated to the past. Yet there it was, on the banks of The Lake: Afro-Cubans, mostly, young and old, men and women crowding around the players beating on the drums and singing the lead-response choruses that characterize Afro-Cuban music.

I first learned of the existence of this Cuban New York tradition from a 1996 piece in the New York Times by its Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter, Mirta Ojito, now a Columbia journalism professor. When did the rumba in the park start?  “Nobody here seems sure how these rumba Sundays started,” wrote Mirta sixteen years ago. “Some say it started spontaneously 80 years ago with a group of friends who wanted to play drums outdoors. Others recall a day in May 14 years ago when a group of Latinos, looking for a place to continue to party after a big parade, settled on this specific spot in Central Park and started a tradition.”  Mirta interviewed one man who claimed to have started rumba Sundays around 1966.

Liza and I wandered around the crowded scene on the sidewalk by The Lake. The percussionists sat on the benches, the singers facing them, standing. Others were milling around. Food and beverages were passed around. Families were picnicking on blankets in the grassy knoll behind the benches.

A middle-aged Afro Cuban man came up to us and introduced himself. I’ll call him Ernesto (not his real name: I neglected to ask him if I could quote him). He had heard Liza and I talking and identified us as Cubans. He offered us something to drink and bid us to make ourselves feel at home.  Ernesto lives in the Bronx and arrived in the U.S. on the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In her 1996 New York Times story, Mirta noted how the longstanding informal “gatherings received an unexpected jolt when Cubans who had arrived in the Mariel-Key West boat lift began appearing.”

In May of 1980 the Cuban government allowed anyone from the United States to sail into the port of Mariel in northern Cuba to pick up their relatives who wanted to leave the island. A massive flotilla ensued. The Cuban authorities packed the boats with a lot more people than just the relatives of the boaters. In five months 125,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S.  Mirta Ojito was among them. She has written about her experience in her book, Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.

One of the distinctive features of the Mariel boatlift is that it is the only post-1959 migration wave from Cuba (before 1980 and since then) with a significant representation of Afro-Cubans. Mariel was responsible for a more visible presence of Afro-Cubans, and Afro-Cuban cultural traits, within the U.S. Cuban community, including Rumba Sundays in Central Park.

Ernesto said two things that have stuck with me. One had to do with Miami. When I mentioned that I had recently moved to New York from Miami, he shook his head and said: “”Don’t like Miami. I lived there briefly after leaving Cuba, and didn’t feel comfortable.”  Among Afro-Cubans, Ernesto is not alone. The 1990 U.S. Census, the first one after Mariel, found that less than ten percent of Cubans in Miami identified as non-whites. Elsewhere in the U.S., one-fourth of all Cubans were non-whites. I suspect (although I do not have the data) that in New York the non-white percentage is even higher. Miami has not been the preferred place of residence for Black Cuban-Americans.

Why? We don’t have a complete picture of racial relations within the Cuban-American population, but research I conducted a few years ago with census data showed that race, and not ethnicity, is the determinant factor in where Afro-Cubans live in Miami, one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.  Black Cubans are more likely to live in predominantly African American areas of the city than in predominantly Cuban areas.

And the second thing that Ernesto said to us that Sunday? “If I hadn’t heard you guys talking, I would have thought you were unos blancos.”

Since moving to New York I have become accustomed to the way race and ethnic categories are sliced here (very differently from Miami). I found out from the Latino students in my Race and Ethnicity class at John Jay College that Latinos here are not White and they are not Black, they are Latinos. Whites are those other people with fair skin who are not Latinos. And Blacks are African Americans.

Since they view race and ethnicity as mutually exclusive, the students have a great deal of difficulty with fact that the U.S. Census asks race (as in White and Black, etc.) and Hispanic origin (as in Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc.) separately. The students want to answer the race question with “Latino” or “Dominican” or “Boricua”, as indeed many Latinos do.  The Census Bureau, however, follows the principle that race and ethnicity are distinct and that therefore “Latinos may be of any race.”  Ernesto has apparently adopted the New York perspective. Once he discovered Liza and I were Cubans, we were no longer blancos.

I cannot help but think that Ernesto’s (and perhaps many Cuban New Yorkers’) perception of racial and ethnic categories has been transformed sometime after arriving from Cuba. On the island, Cubans are also negros, blancos, mulatos, and even chinos (surrogate for Asian) and whatever other labels people want to use to categorize a multiracial society, for better or worse.

Ultimately, of course, race is a cultural construct and therefore fickle. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Central Park, with the boaters in The Lake seemingly rowing to the rhythm of the drums, with everyone having a good time, it did not matter who was blanco, or Cuban, or negro or Boricua. What mattered was the rumba.

Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker? The Case for Cristóbal Mádan

Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan meets the criteria I set out in my June 21st blog post for identifying the first true Cuban New Yorker. He was already in the city when Félix Varela arrived. He was involved in movements to sever Cuba from Spain, so he thought of himself as a Cuban, and he certainly had an enduring (if not always continuous) presence in New York City that possibly spanned as many as seven decades.  In fact, Mádan is a Zelig-type of figure in the history of Cuban New York. Or perhaps he is closer to Forrest Gump.

I don’t mean by that comparison that he was a comic figure (and I certainly do not mean any disrespect). What I mean by the comparison is that, like Forrest Gump, or Zelig, Mádan was a fairly nondescript low-profile sort of guy who was not among the most prominent historical figures, yet managed to be connected with all the major players of his day, his name surfacing almost unexpectedly at various critical points from 1823 all the way to the 1870s. In other words, he was a recurring background figure in the story of Cuban New York.

I suspect that in large measure he had a low profile because he preferred it that way. He published his political essays under a pseudonym, for example. As with most behind-the-scenes personages he was not doubt a much more important player than what the historical record reveals. But the fact is that I cannot post here a drawing, painting, or a photograph of him because I have not been able to find one, nor do I know exactly when or how or where he died or where he is buried. [If anyone can fill those gaps I would appreciate hearing from you].

The Mádans originated in Waterford, Ireland, where the name was probably spelled Madden. Cristobal’s grandfather migrated to Havana by way of the Canary Islands around the time of the British occupation of the city, the right moment to get in on the ground floor of the sugar boom. The family lived in Havana, but their mills were in the Matanzas region.

Cristóbal was named after his maternal grandfather, who was also his father’s uncle. Cristóbal’s father, Joaquín, had married a first cousin, Josefa Nicasia Mádan (not unusual among landed elites everywhere, like, say, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton). Joaquín and Josefa had six children, of which Cristóbal was the youngest and the only male. After his wife died, Joaquín married yet another first cousin, Josefa’s sister. They had no children.

As with most of the newly-rich sugarocacy, the Madans sold their sugar in New York, where the “counting houses” that lined South Street acted as the selling agents, keeping accounts for them and investing their money. When he was about to turn sixteen, in the summer of 1822, Cristobal was sent to New York to learn English, study, and gain experience in the city’s mercantile world. Arrangements were made for him to intern as a clerk in the counting house of Jonathan Goodhue at 44 South Street, just south of Maiden Lane. Goodhue was

“View of South Street, From Maiden Lane,” by William James Bennett, 1827

a New Englander who was engaged in importing sugar from the mills of the Madans and other Cuban producers. It was there that “Cristobalito” greeted his former teacher, Father Félix Varela, when the priest arrived in Manhattan on December 15, 1823. One week later, Mádan also welcomed to the city a friend from Matanzas: the poet José María Heredia. Cristóbal helped both of those prominent Cubans find housing and establish a foothold in the city.

José María Heredia

Heredia would address him facetiously as “My Dear Consul,” referring in a letter to Mádan to the “laborious and sterile job the Republic has entrusted to you” in New York (a “Republic” that at that time existed only in the thoughts of Varela and Heredia).

But an independent Cuban Republic was probably not in the mind of Cristóbal Mádan. By the time he was in his forties he emerged again in the history of Cuban New York as a committed advocate of Cuba’s annexation to the United States. The 1850 U.S. Census found him living in the fashionable Madison Square Park area with his second wife Mary, six children, and eight servants. That same year he also became a U.S. citizen. That is not to say that he

lived continuously in New York. Mádan led what we would call today a transnational life, dividing his time between New York, Havana, and Matanzas. All of his children, for example, were born in Cuba.

Cristóbal Mádan played an important behind-the-scenes role in the movement that so many of his fellow sugar producers favored: annexationism. The sugarocracy believed it was in their best interest for Cuba to join the Union as a slave state. Cristóbal wrote anonymously for the annexationist newspaper in New York, La Verdad, which he probably also helped to bankroll. And he was

also responsible for connecting his fellow sugarocrats with influential Americans who favored annexing Cuba. It is not difficult to see why he was the point man for that connection. His second wife Mary was a New York Irish-American named Mary O’Sullivan, the sister of John L. O’Sullivan, an influential New York Democrat and a committed expansionist who is credited with coining the term “Manifest Destiny.”   O’Sullivan convinced President James Polk to make an offer to Spain to buy Cuba, an offer that was, of course, roundly rejected by Madrid.

Cristóbal emerges again in New York among the refugees from the war for independence that started in 1868. Already in his sixties, his economic situation was in a tailspin with the embargo of properties that the Spanish leveled against Cubans who left the island. The war had created a large community of displaced Cubans in New York, and Cristóbal returned to his role as the city’s “unofficial Cuban Consul,” using his longstanding contacts with city officials and with the Catholic archdiocese to help Cubans in need.

Mádan probably returned to Cuba after the end of the war in 1878 to try to recover his embargoed properties, something many other Cuban New Yorkers also tried to do, with no success. The treaty that ended the war guaranteed amnesty and a safe return to exiled Cubans, but was silent on returning embargoed properties.

Cristóbal probably lived out his life in Havana attending to his law practice, which also tied him to the next stage in the development of Cuban New York. His law office once hired a young teenaged intern by the name of José Martí.

So the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker is a strong one. He arrived before – in fact greeted – two of the towering figures of Cuban New York: Varela and Heredia. He had a deep and abiding, if not always permanent, connection with the city his entire life. His political activities make clear that he identified not as Spanish, but as Cuban. Of course, he did not have the impact that Varela had on New York. And we would need to be reconciled to the idea that the first Cuban New Yorker was an annexationist and a slave owner.

In a future blog, the case for Varela.

The Simple Pleasures of a Chino-Cubano Restaurant

During my high school years in Miami one of my favorite things to do was to take a public bus from Hialeah to downtown Miami and poke around the Miami Public Library.  Back then the Miami Public Library was a gleaming white marble (0r was it limestone?) building that stood on what was once called Bayfront Park (“El Parque de las Palomas”) at the foot of Flagler Street. That was way before anyone thought of “Bicentennial Park” or the American Airlines Arena or the Miami Heat.

Part of my routine in those jaunts downtown was to stroll down Flagler at lunchtime to a little place with a counter called El Wakamba (a shadow of what had been its namesake in Havana’s La Rampa). There I could get a plate of Special Fried Rice with a side of fried plantains and a café for 99 cents. The syncretism of the Chinese dish with the Afro-Caribbean maduros was delectable and it was a way for me to experience something I had missed in Cuba. I was eleven when I left the island, too young to frequent the famed establishments of Havana’s Chinatown, once one of the largest of such enclaves in Latin America.

Chinese contract laborers started arriving in Cuba in 1847 as part of a scheme by sugar plantation owners to augment the dwindling African slave population. According to the historical demographer Juan Pérez de la Riva, in his book Los culíes chinos en Cuba, about 150,000 Chinese laborers migrated to Cuba in the period from 1847 to 1874 and were dispersed throughout the island’s sugar plantations, working in conditions that differed little from those endured by African slaves.

A second major migration occurred much later, from 1919 to 1925 when about 30,000 immigrants, primarily from southern China, arrived to take advantage of the prosperity in the island during those years. Those twentieth-century immigrants settled primarily in Havana. The 1931 Cuban population census found 24,647 Chinese-born persons in Cuba, of which nearly half lived in the capital. Not surprisingly, Chinese immigrants left their mark throughout Cuban history and culture, including the food Cubans grew accustomed to eating.

Chinese-Cubans who decided to leave the island in the wake of the Cuban Revolution came primarily to New York, unlike most other Cuban émigrés, who increasingly favored Miami as the place to live. That is why with few exceptions (like El Wakamba), chino-cubano restaurants never took hold in Miami in significant numbers. Meanwhile, in Cuba the elimination of private ownership of restaurants (and of every other type of business) meant that the chino-cubano restaurant virtually disappeared in the island.

It was therefore in New York where the chino-cubano restaurant flourished, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Many New Yorkers remember with fondness their favorite chino-cubano restaurant, where the food was plentiful and cheap. One of them, Asia de Cuba, was so well-known that years later its name was attached to a high-end restaurant that became fashionable until it closed a few months ago. But fashionable has never been the trademark of the chino-cubano restaurant. It is simply a good value for the money, usually with a very unfashionable ambience.

Several readers of CNY have recommended their favorite chino-cubano restaurants to me. But for the first CNY restaurant review (of any Cuban restaurant, chino or otherwise) I decided to go with tradition and nostalgia: La Caridad 78, which bills itself as “serving the Upper West Side since 1968.” The 78 comes from its relatively new location: the southwest corner of 78th and Broadway.

Chinese-Cuban cuisine is not about the creation of any single syncretic dish, but rather, the juxtaposition of Cuban and Chinese favorites, pepper steak with black beans and rice, for example. The juxtaposition goes beyond the menu to the décor and even to the personnel. The décor (if we can call it that) is punctuated by yellowed magazine and newspaper reviews of the restaurant, and presiding over all of it is a framed image of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the restaurant’s namesake and the island’s Catholic patron saint, who looks over the restaurant’s tables with their Chinese zodiac paper placemats. The manager is Antonio Wong and the waiters speak to customers in either English or Spanish, but in Cantonese among themselves. The whole scene is one incredible anthropological mélange.

The menu describes the La Caridad’s fare as “Comida China y Criolla” with the Cuban dishes listed in a section entitled “Spanish Dishes – Platos Criollos,” a contradictory translation when you consider that the term criollo was originally used to distinguish Cubans from the colonialists. And those are Cuban, not Spanish, dishes: picadillo, vaca frita, bisté de palomilla, rabo encendido, among others, listed across the page from the lo mein, beef with bean curd, sweet and sour chicken, etc.

Liza went entirely the criollo way: masitas de puerco fritas (fried pork chunks) with black beans and rice. She pronounced the masitas and the beans to be up to the standards of the best in Miami: the masitas were moist and the black beans thick and soft.

I went the nostalgia-for-Wakamba route with the #1 Combination Platter: special fried rice with fried plantains (maduros), which I washed down with what else but a Tsingtao. It was up there with what I remember of Wakamba’s combination platter, but even better because instead of two or three measly slices of maduros, La Caridad gives you a generous portion, enough for me to share with Liza (and I usually don’t share my maduros, going back to my childhood when my brother and I used to practically duke it out at the family table for the remaining ones on the platter).

The food was so plentiful that I was not going to order dessert, but there it was on the menu, a truly rare find nowadays in Cuban (Chinese or otherwise) restaurants: cascos de guayaba con queso crema.  Not Chinese, of course. The syrupy guava shells with their perfect and unassuming companion, cream cheese, have largely become extinct, especially in Miami’s Cuban restaurants. Why is that? Has it become somehow too déclassé, somehow too common compared with flan, flan de coco, and that Nicaraguan import, the sophisticated tres leches? After all, what’s usually involved in serving it is simply


opening a can of the shells and slicing the Philadelphia. Too unpretentious perhaps for a restaurant with pretentions. But that, of course, is not La Caridad, so there it was, I ordered it, they opened the can, and it was good.

The total bill for this delicious syncretic feast for two, with tip: $28.00. Cash only, please, no credit cards accepted. What? You think they took credit cards in Havana’s Chinatown?

La Caridad 78, 2199 Broadway (at 78th St), (212) 874-2780