Yuca Holds its Mojo, But Who Calls The Shots in Cuban Kitchens?

Este artículo también está disponible en: Español

May 2006

Yuca Holds its Mojo

Cubans are fewer and fewer in New York. Among the city’s foreign-born groups, they went from being ranked 6th in the 1970 census to a distant 26th in 2000.

But you would never suspect this if you surveyed Cuban restaurants, which have gone from only a handful a decade ago to over twenty nowadays – ranging from luncheonettes and neighborhood cafés to upscale dining rooms with live music and on-site cigar-rolling.

And the growth has not stopped just yet. At least five brand-new Cuban eateries are being planned as you read this.

You may be wondering, then, if so many Cubans have left for the suburbs or South Florida, who is dishing the ropa vieja these days?

The answer is, an assorted bunch of American, European and Latin American businesspeople –including first-timers and experienced restaurateurs- who literally stepped up to the plate as they realized there was an underserved demand for Cuban food in a city that’s growing more and more Latin.

Un Cubano, por favor
There are more Cuban restaurants owned by non-Cubans, but this does not mean restaurateurs from the island are extinct. Here are some of the city’s Cuban standards.

Victor’s Café 52: On 52nd Street in the Theater District, Victor’s is an established institution for upscale Cuban dining. Víctor del Corral, 84, first opened it on Columbus Avenue in 1963. “He still calls every day” from Florida, granddaughter Natalia Zaldívar-Bonzón reports.

Rincón Criollo: Jesús René Acosta, 71, and brother Rodobaldo, 74, created this traditional restaurant in Corona in 1976 – when they were surrounded by Cuban residents and businesses. Today, they are the last ones standing, with classics like arroz con pollo, vaca frita and black beans.

Little Havana: “Everything here is homemade,” says Lidia Sharpe at her small, cozy West Village spot, where she does all the cooking. Ever since opening in 1998, she makes sure her beans are organic, her meat, prime cuts. “Almost everything that I buy is special,” she says. And the menu, she adds, is kept “very simple.”

Havana New York: Havana-born Raúl Febles, 46, opened up shop on West 38th Street in 1991. “If it doesn’t have sofrito, it’s not going to have the taste,” is his motto.

El Sitio: Tucked underneath the 7 train tracks at 69th street in Woodside, this luncheonette is another old-timer, renowned for its cubano sandwich.

“The Cuban thing is very, very hot,” says Jeremy Merrin, 47, an Internet bubble alumnus with an MBA from Columbia University. Merrin made his debut in the restaurant business in 2002 with Havana Central, off Union Square. Since then, he has opened a second, bigger branch half a block from Times Square, and is now planning an even more spacious third location.

Together with Merrin, who is American, the roster of Cuban-restaurant owners includes Italian Marco Britti, his Franco-Italian cousin Jean Claude Iacovelli and American Dan Houle at Cubana Café; Argentinean Mario Zárate at Azúcar; his Bolivian partner Luis Skibar, who also owns Cuba and Havana Alma de Cuba; another American, Tommy Vicari, at Cuba Café; and Peruvian Sofía Luna and her family, owners of four branches of Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine.

What they all realized is that non-spicy Cuban food is friendly to most palates and that there was a lack of Latino restaurants in certain neighborhoods and certain markets. Add Cuba’s status in the American collective consciousness as an enchanted forbidden island… and you get an instant formula for success.

“It shot up”, says Zárate, 60, about business at his Eighth Avenue restaurant after he decided to convert it last summer from underperforming Italian Terra to Azúcar. Similar reincarnations took place at Calle Ocho on Columbus Avenue –formerly American family-style eatery Main Street–, Havana Alma de Cuba on Christopher Street –a diner in its previous life-, and at Cubana Café on Thompson Street, previously a panini shop.

In the case of Sophie’s, a chain aimed at the lunch-hour crowd, success was such that it has opened six restaurants since 1997 (although two neighboring the World Trade Center were closed after Sept. 11.) Besides two new locations in the works, the chain intends to sell franchises as early as the end of the year, says Luna, 28, one of four siblings in the business with their mother.

But how do non-Cuban restaurateurs ensure their food is the real thing?

Most say they rely on chefs who are Cuban or are trained in Cuban food. “I’m not pretending to be a Cuban chef,” says Merrin, of Havana Central. “I took authentic elements of a wonderful culture and turned it into a business.”

Of course, if you ask for opinions among the Cubans who own restaurants in the city, reactions range from polite shrugging to mostly off the record complaints about people rushing to join a profitable trend.

“Everyone started opening restaurants named Havana, Havana, Havana…” says Lidia Sharpe, 73, owner and chef at Little Havana in the West Village.

“I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s very important that they do enough research,” says Natalia Zaldívar-Bonzón, 28, who, as the granddaughter of the city’s Cuban food pioneer Víctor del Corral, is in charge of Victor’s Café 52.

Not surprisingly, all non-Cuban owners say Cubans love their food.

“They are surprised,” says Skibar, 38, owner of Cuba on Thompson Street and Havana Alma de Cuba on Christopher Street. “They don’t understand how, with Luis being Bolivian, we can have these restaurants,” adds his secret weapon, Cuban wife Beatriz de Armas, 35.

What everyone agrees on is that demand will remain high for Cuban food.

“I knew the Spanish thing was going to take off,” says of Hispanic food Tommy Vicari, 51, owner of Cuba Café in Chelsea and five other restaurants of assorted cuisines. “The Spanish population is growing and there’s a demand for more Spanish restaurants, music, everything.”