Tag Archives: Cuban food

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.

Havana in Williamsburg

Manhattanites have traditionally regarded the “outer boroughs” in the same condescending way habaneros talk about “en provincia, “ or what used to be called in Cuba “el interior,” that is, the rest of the world out there beyond the center of the universe.  It is clear, however, that in recent years Brooklyn (or at least parts of it), has become “cool” enough to escape provincial status and be touted as part of the known New York world.  That much is evident on any given weekend evening as the Brooklyn-bound L train disgorges scores of “hip” young people at the Bedford Avenue stop for an evening in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg has acquired a particular appeal because it is probably the one “cool” place in Brooklyn where you are not in danger of being run over by a stroller. Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and the like have acquired a reputation for “hip young families.” But in Williamsburg the vibe is more like an edgy version of the Meatpacking District scene in Manhattan: young single people out for a good time.

Liza and I went to Williamsburg recently in search of a Cuban restaurant we had seen on a Sunday last summer on our way to the Williamsburg Flea Market. We had forgotten the name of it, but nevertheless managed to locate it on North 6th Street, between Whythe and Kent Avenues, a couple of blocks from the Bedford Avenue station. It has a puzzling name: Cubana Socíal. Hmmm . . . what’s up with that accent on the i? And in what way do cubana and social combine to form a meaningful term? A sociable Cuban female person?  The friendly skies of the Cuban national airline? There must be a story behind the name that I am missing. Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply meant to be evocative in a meaningless way.

The restaurant bills itself as “1940s Havana Meets Brooklyn,” and that is indeed what makes this place intriguing. It’s more about the ambience than the food, although the food is good enough.  The ambience actually does not start at the door of the restaurant, but in the neighborhood itself. The success of the restaurant’s interior design is that it is a continuation of the atmosphere of the neighborhood. There is something peculiarly Havanesque about Williamsburg.

The elements are all there. Williamsburg is an area transitioning from warehouses, factories, and industrial shops to a cool chic based precisely upon the omnipresence, and transformation, of the ruins of the past. There are shuttered and dilapidated spaces everywhere, with some of those spaces converted to restaurants, bars, and stores that are interspersed among, and even integrated with, the ruins. Last month, The New York Times reported that an arts group called The Original Music Workshop is holding avant-garde artistic performances in the open air inside the weathered shell of a former factory. The picture in the Times could have been taken right out of a report from Havana on the city’s culture and arts spaces. Art among the ruins.

A performance designed by the artist Erika Harrsch, with butterfly-shaped kites, was among the acts at Original Music Workshop in Williamsburg. Photo by Marcus Yam for The New York Times.

As with Havana, the Williamsburg that straddles Bedford Avenue retains (so far) the ambience and decayed structures of its past.  Retaining that past gives the place an unmistakable grittiness, a pervasive unkemptness that has been lost in the now impeccable neighborhoods that have completed the transition to gentrification. There are the broken and patchy (even dangerous) sidewalks, the boarded-up factories and shops, the peeling paint, and the vacant lots overgrown with weeds. And another thing: the quality of the light. In a factory and warehouse district where everyone went home at night, there was a minimal investment  in street lighting (as has happened in Havana, where the urban infrastructure has not been a priority). Liza noticed it first: Williamsburg at night has a dimness evocative of Havana.

The folks at Cubana Socíal have very successfully played off that neighborhood vibe. It’s not really 1940’s Havana meets Brooklyn, but more like the ruins of 1940’s (and 1910s, 1920’s and 1930’s) Havana meets Brooklyn. The space is cavernous, probably a former auto repair or body shop or perhaps a factory, with a very high ceiling, square brick columns throughout, and cement floor. Not much has been done to transform it into a restaurant, except for a magnificent bar and an art deco front with a weathered industrial look to give the appearance that it has always been there (or in Havana). Compared to the bar, contemporary in its style, the tables and chairs (some of them rickety or foldable) seem to be almost an afterthought, a mishmash of styles cobbled together from the nearby flea market. But it is actually part of an evidently conscious effort to emulate the grittiness of old Havana, a paladar set in a space that used to be something else, complete with peeling paint.

The art deco style is replicated on the walls by several prints by Conrado Massaguer (1889-1965), no doubt reproduced from illustrations of his fiercely art deco magazine Social (no accent). [Massaguer, who lived in New York for part of his life, deserves a separate future post in CNY].

There is another way Cubana Socíal tries to evoke Havana: the attempt at creating a surreal ambience [I wonder if it is really true, as legend holds, that Sartre, as he was leaving Cuba after his only visit there in 1960, with Simone de Beauvoir at his side and his coat draped over his shoulders, said: “One could not live here, it is too surreal.”]

Cubana Socíal has a whiff of Cuban surrealism. The space is so huge that there are large empty spaces without tables, a strange expansiveness rare among space-starved New York restaurants. On a huge wall the restaurant continually shows black and white American movies, with no sound and for no evident reason nor connection with the Cuban theme.

When we were there they were showing a noir movie, with vaguely familiar but unnamable actors, apparently about a returning soldier with an overacted case of post-traumatic stress disorder acquired after being imprisoned in a camp run by sadistic Asian soldiers in Mao suits. Who knows . . . maybe the Cold War connection. All of this while El Benny can be heard singing Maracaibo Oriental. What would Sartre say?

Oh yes . . . the food. Reflecting the investment in the bar and not the dining area, Cubana Socíal’s drink menu is about as large as the food menu. There are several varieties of rum concoctions, but also a lot of other choices (a good thing, since I must confess here and now that, as is true of most Cubans when given a choice, I’ll take whiskey over rum any day). The main food offerings are few and simple, one dish per protein source: lechón asado, ropa vieja, shrimp and rice, some sort of chicken, and a vegetarian option, most served with white rice and black beans. There are appetizers and sides and sandwiches. Liza ordered the ropa vieja and I went for the lechón, which was curiously served not in chunks, but shredded, like vaca frita. We ordered, of course, a side of maduros.

The servings are also kept simple. Unlike most Cuban restaurants, where the huge quantities of food come in separate plates, everything came in one overflowing plate in the style of Chinese combination dinners or the old “blue-plate specials.”  The servings are on the modest side, but so are the prices. The food was good and authentic and the deal breaker (for me) was there: well-done maduros, amelcochados. Liza and I shared a flan, which was rich and caramel-y.

So, yes, grab the L and go out there. Take in the food and, especially, the ambience, which kicks in as soon as you exit the station. It’s an ambience that is changing, no doubt faster than in Havana.

Cubana Socíal
70 North 6th Street
(between Whythe and Kent Avenues)
Brooklyn, NY 
(718) 782-3334

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