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

16 responses to “The Simple Pleasures of a Chino-Cubano Restaurant

  1. This posting brought back a lot of memories. I also took the public bus from Hialeah to go downtown, Miami. From Bayfront Park, I remember the library, of course, but also the bandshell for concerts, a rock garden (it could have been a Chinese garden) and the Torch of Friendship, but the main reason I went downtown was for the movies. There were five movie houses on Flagler Street and I went to all of them, most of the time to two in one trip. The first one (walking “up” from Bayfront Park) was the Town theatre. Next to it was the Paramount, then the Florida and Miami theatres. Across the street from these four, was, arguably, the best of them all: The majestic Olympia Theatre. I also used to go to the worst one, which was the Rio theatre. It was off Flagler street, around N.E. First Avenue near the GESU Catholic Church. The Rio was a cheap, rundown movie house that showed double-features. Looking back on it now, it was probably a “dangerous” place, but when one is so young, we don’t think of things like that, and the 60’s and early 70’s were somewhat different times. Thanks for the memories Lisandro.

  2. When I lived in New York from 1961 to 1963 we used to eat at the Cuban-Chinese restaurants in the West Side, which were cheap and delicious. Later, when we moved to Maryland and were better off, each time we visited NY we made a tradition of having a drink at The Plaza Hotel and dinner “con los chinos”. Of course, one drink would cost more than the whole dinner. It´s probably still true. Great review. Made me nostalgic.

  3. Julio Ruiz, MD

    Ay mama Inés, what a review! I love it, including the pictures. There is a direct relationship between sociologist and food critic. There was another famous one on 72 between Broadway and Columbus. It maybe the same one that moved to a new and better location. In Miami, in the mid sixties, the most famous one was located on 8 and 8 Street, SW, Jose y Federico.

  4. Muy bueno Lisandro. Felicidades!

  5. rafael diazcasas

    I do not have those Miami memories, but in the early 80’s Havana’s Barrio Chino started to witness the rebirth of El Pacifico, a chino-cubano restaurant that had reopened. Then I took any opportunity I had to stop at this landmark four-floor restaurant. That Cantonese-Creole flavored food was unique, and I have heard so much about it from my father and grandfather. Later in the 1990s, living in New York I rediscovered this flavor and made it part of my culinary routine. Then Dinastia at 72th & Amsterdam (as Julio Ruiz mentioned here) became one of the favorite places to eat in the city. Today Dinastia is still open and serving. The owners are chino-cubano, but some of the workers are chino-peruano. The food they serve there is the closest in my memory of that served at El Pacifico in Havana.

  6. It was inevitable that someone would do it, and that someone was me. After reading this post and looking at the pictures, I went to my local Publix and purchased a can of casquitos de guayaba Ancel, something that I had not done for at least ten years. I was looking for queso crema Nela to go with it, but I had to settle for Kraft brand Philadelphia brick cream cheese. It makes a perfect combination. Delish! This posting also made me think of other Cuban products that I had forgotten, such as membrillo, masa real, raspadura, torticas de moron and chiviricos.

  7. Victor M. Perez

    Excellent! I really enjoyed it. Definitely going to smoke a cigar this weekend.
    I have three memories of the Chinese in Cuba: the guy that would come by our house riding a bicycle which had a freezer/cooler full of fish mounted on the front wheel and sold fish door to door (and provide political commentary), another guy that would also come by on his especially outfitted bicycle and would sharpen your knives and, finally, my favorite, a very tall skinny Chinese guy that carried a huge “Santa Clause style” bag over his shoulder and sold little bags of explosives that made a loud noise when you threw them on the ground or at each other. Since I was only about 6 or 7 years old all these memories took place on our street.

  8. I had Juan Perez de la Riva as a teacher in Havana University and he was a captivating figure. He never prepared classes and his spontaneous lectures would rivet us to our seats trying to catch every word he uttered during the full two hour period.
    I remember vividly the lecture he dedicated to the Chinese presence in Cuba.
    He described how the Spanish agent sent to Canton to recruit Chinese indentured servants was unable to obtain a single one during the first few months he remained there.
    And how to solve the problem he offered the Chinese governor a commission (bribe) of one ounce of gold for every indentured servant he helped him recruit.
    The Chinese governor went to the prisons where thousands of rebels from the Taiping Rebellion were being held until they were processed in batches to get their heads cut off and announced to the prisoners that his Imperial Higness was merciful and would give them a choice between being decapitated and going to Cuba.
    Naturally the thousands of prisoners opted to go to Cuba. That is why when Castro sent us city dwellers to work in the rural areas we would say that we were going “in a voluntary manner like the Chinese”.
    But the Spanish agent made a mistake and brought the “creme de la creme” of the Chinese revolutionaries to Cuba.
    For that reason when the first Cuban War of Independence occurred in 1868 all the Chinese Indentured servants revolted and fought on the Cuban side gaining recognition for their loyalty and heroism during its ten year duration and reaching high ranks in the Cuban Liberation Army.
    A grey column monument to the Chinese mambises in Linea Avenue proclaims to the world “Not a single Chinese was a traitor. Not a single chinese was a deserter!”
    Thus the Chinese earned the right to be considered as an integral part of the Cuban nation where their descendants make up around 1% of the population.
    With time Chinese emigration to Cuba continued but its political composition shifted to the right. In 1902 when Cuba became independent thousands of apolitical working class Chinese came to the island.
    Later in 1949 with the triumph of the Chinese Communist Revolution the island was flooded with thousands of right wing refugees fleeing from Mao Tze Tung.
    When Castro came to power in 1959 and established close relations with Red China, Chinese Communist activists tried unsuccessfully to get these right wing Chinese to join the Cuba- China Friendship Society.
    Having no takers they used a successful stimuli, promising all the Chinese that joined the society that they would be allowed to travel to China and get wives.
    In the early years of the sixties, thousands of Cuban Chinese travelled to China on Cuban ships carrying sugar with Cuban political commissars for a three month stay in which they returned to their native villages found their girl friends got married and took a boat back to Cuba with their wives.
    These nuptial expeditions replenished Havana’s Chinatown.
    However in 1968, in preparation for the 1970 ten million tons of sugar goal, Castro nationalized all private businesses in the island and all the small chinese restaurants and laundries were taken over and given Cuban managers.
    However since all the accounting and business correspondence was in Chinese and the managers were not given any assitance by the sullen original owners and their chinese workers, the businesses were shut down very soon and all the Chinese owners and workers were retired.
    Shortly afterwards you could see in the streets of Havana very young chinese walking about telling the surprised Cuban population that they had been retired.
    The problem was solved when the US government, thanks to the change in US immigration laws and to the fact that these chinese had had their property taken over by the Cuban government, allowed many of them to apply for permanent entry visas to the US.
    They came to New York and founded the Chinese Cuban restaurants that your blog writes about.
    I think that the best Cuban food in New York can be found in them and visit them frequently. When I do so, I always remember my dear teacher, Juan Perez de la Riva, Cuba’s most prominent demographer!
    The Chinese Cubans are an integral part of our nationality and of our culture. Cuba would not be Cuba without them!
    Cuba suffered a great loss when so many of them came to New York but their presence here at least brings to the many other compatriots living here not only excellent Cuban food but also a nostalgic remembrance of past life in our island.

  9. Wow! La boca se me ha hecho agua leyendo ese review y viendo las fotos. Yo hubiera escogido exactamente ese menú (postre incluido). Un post delicioso — pun intended🙂 Si regreso por NY, buscaré ese restaurante.

  10. Excelente Lisandro. Estuve por la Carida hace como un mes recordando los dias de estudiante graduado en los 80’s en Columbia con mas hambre (y pelo) y menos presupuesto (y barriga) que ahora. La comida y el decorado no han cambiado nada. Algo que cambio fueron los “placemats” que antes eran un mapa de papel con las antiguas provincias de Cuba. Como era un “regular” en la Caridad me daban los “placemats” gratis y yo los usaba para repartir a mis estudiantes en los cursos de historia del Caribe que ensenaba en City College como adjunct.

    • Gracias, Felo, por compartir tus recuerdos de La Caridad. Muchas personas tambien han compartido conmigo como un restaurante chino-cubano de NY fue su salvación cuando eran estudiantes o empezaban sus carreras.

  11. Alla en New Jersey en la epoca de los 80s, teniamos varias fondas Chino Cubano, la mas popular era la Campana China, en Bergenline Ave. La Caridad 78 es UN buen restaurant Chino Cubano en NYC

  12. Pingback: Distinguishing national cuisines in the Spanish Caribbean | Comida Studies

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