Two Sides to the Menu

| 04 Jan 2016 | 06:02

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Cuban-Chinese restaurants, serving inexpensive and flavorful food, were almost as ubiquitous in New York City as pizzerias, diners, Irish bars and Jewish delis. While some still exist (including one in Chelsea), their number is a fraction of what it was then. And Chelsea, specifically Eighth Avenue, had a large concentration of these eateries.

The story of Cuban-Chinese, or Latino-Chinese, restaurants begins in Cuba. Just as they did in the U.S., many Chinese immigrants came to Cuba in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of them to work on sugar plantations. According to Larry Tung’s Gotham Gazette article “Cuban Chinese Restaurants,” from 2003, “By 1940, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 [Chinese] were living in Havana and other parts of the island.” Of course, some of them opened restaurants.

With the rise of Castro and Communism, many of these Cuban-Chinese people fled to the U.S. Since most spoke fluent Spanish, many opened up restaurants that served the Hispanic community and offered both Hispanic and Chinese food.

Culturally, the Cuban-Chinese immigrants were a blend of both traditions: A 1985 article in The New York Times, “For Cuban-Chinese, the Twain Meet,” describes one such family: “The Loos speak Spanish, Chinese and English at home, celebrate the Chinese New Year and listen to Latin music. Jesus Loo usually eats Chinese vegetables and fish, while his wife and children prefer beefsteak, fried plantains and black beans.”

There are certain similarities between traditional Chinese and traditional Cuban cuisine — rice and pork are staples of both. Among the dishes that were popular in Cuban-Chinese restaurants, Tung wrote, were fried pork chop, fried chicken crackling, beef steak (or bistec de palomilla), fried plantains and ropa vieja (shredded beef, or, literally, “old clothes”). Of course, many people also ordered lo mein, chow mein, egg foo yung and other familiar Chinese dishes.

Kaci, a commenter on cabdriver/tour guide/food writer “Famous Fat Dave’s” blog, wrote in 2006 that the first Cuban-Chinese restaurant in Chelsea was Asia de Cuba, which opened in the 1960s. “Soon afterward, several other Cuban-Chinese places opened within a block. One was on 20th Street, which lasted for some years,” he wrote.

“Asia de Cuba was utilitarian, it had small tables,” remembers Anne Skagen, a retired editor who lived in Chelsea from the 1970s through the 1990s. “It had good food, and you could get a hot meal for a reasonable price. Service was good — you didn’t have to wait long for your meal.”

The two Cuban-Chinese restaurants on Eighth Avenue that are probably most remembered today were Mi Chinita (later Sam Chinita), in a large diner-type building on 19th Street and Eighth Avenue that was similar in looks to the Empire Diner; and La Chinita Linda, on 18th and Eighth. Famous Fat Dave, in his 2006 article, said about La Chinita Linda: “Their Chinese food was above par. Their egg rolls, heavy on the shrimp, light on the cabbage and fried until they were a dark, crispy brown, were some of the best I’ve ever had. And the beers were under $2 a bottle.”

My wife, Rhea Lewin Geberer, a retired social-service case worker who has lived in Chelsea since the 1970s, had lunch every week at a Latino-Chinese place on 15th Street and Eighth Avenue. “Their ropa vieja was always a little different. One day, the cook explained that he was Dominican, not Cuban, and used a different spice.”

She also remembers Mi Chinita. “I would always get the chicken with cashews. There were lots of cashews, and the chicken was perfect.”

Why did these restaurants diminish in number? Changing demographics and surging rents certainly played a part. But like other immigrant groups, many of the children of the original Cuban-Chinese immigrants preferred to go into the professions rather than operate their parents’ small businesses

Thankfully for food aficionados, there is still one Latino-Chinese restaurant in Chelsea — El Paraiso on 14th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, which replaced a similar restaurant called La Nueva Rampa. The Chinese side of the menu still features Cantonese dishes like chow mein, chop suey and egg foo yung, which an increasing number of modern Asian restaurants have abandoned. And on the Upper West Side, you can find La Caridad 78, Flor de Mayo (which is Peruvian-Chinese) and several others.