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