THE EVOLUTION OF CUBAN CUISINE IN NYC (WHERE TO EAT)

My article, The Evolution of Cuban Cuisine in NYC, was originally published by Epicure and Culture and updated  July 17, 2019.

Some years ago, if I said Cuban cuisine you probably would have thought “rice and beans.” Oh, how things have changed. The recent proliferation of Cuban restaurants in New York City is both impressive and welcome. Little by little the range of Cuban culinary options has been growing; not just in quantity of Cuban restaurants but in diversity within the Cuban cuisine category itself.

This fusion is merely the continued natural evolution of Cuban cuisine throughout its history.

Amor Cubano's murala showcase Cuban artists.

Amor Cubano’s mural showcase Cuban artists.

Tracing Cuba’s Culinary Influences

In 1492 the Spaniards arrived in Cuba with their livestock and cooking methods which blended with native Indian ingredients like sweet potato, corn and guava. Shortly thereafter the West African influence arrived with the slaves who introduced plantain, okra and Guinea hen. The early 1800s experienced several waves of French immigration retreating from the Haitian Revolution.

The influence doesn’t stop there, either. As we continue into the mid-1800s we see over 150,000 Chinese contract workers arriving in Cuba to work the sugar plantations. Many of these workers stayed even longer, and with this immigration of people came an introduction of ingredients.

Cuban Food and Restaurants in NYC With Chinese Flare

These immigrants opened restaurants in the form of Cuban-Chinese eateries that became very popular with locals. We don’t really see these types of restaurants anymore in Cuba, as from 1959 these restauranteurs began leaving for the USA, mainly Miami and NYC.

Which is why you can still savor them in New York though today you’ll hear them called Chino-Latino.

While more popular in the 1960s and 70s, two that have prospered despite changing neighborhoods are Flor de Mayo and La Caridad 78 on the Upper West Side. There’s also Asia de Cuba in the East Village, a more upscale option for these kinds of fusion dishes.

Cuban Cuisine Changes With The Locals

The ever-evolving demographics of NYC are reflected in the changing characteristics of Cuban cuisine. In many restaurants, it’s now all about Cuban fusion: Cuban-Brazilian, Dominican-Cuban, Cuban-Mexican and any number of other combinations.

These shifting demographics have prompted some restaurants to tweak their menu by offering meals beyond the traditional fare. “Although we pride ourselves on the authenticity of our food, we recognize the benefit of adjusting some of our offerings to appeal to the wider consumer base,” says Julian Quevedo, manager of Amor Cubano, a trendy Cuban restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Menu selections like Argentinian empanadas and Ecuadorian ceviche appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers.
The result is great traditional selections (think mojitos) made even better (think guava mojitos).

A Menu True To Cuban Roots

Victor’s Café has been one of the staple Cuban restaurants in NYC for almost 50 years. Which may be why they have a slightly different take on where the ever-evolving food of Cuba is heading. It reads on their website, “The evolution of Cuban cuisine is our interpretation of what an upscale Cuban restaurant would be in Cuba if politics had not interfered with its growth.”

Photo via Victor’s Cafe

The menu remains true to its Cuban roots. New menu creations derive from already existing Cuban fare rather than borrowing from other cultures. Examples include Bartolito, a flavorful concoction of sweet plantain, pork stuffing, black bean puree and goat cheese or Harina con Camarones, corn grits and shrimp in enchilado sauce.

Victor’s Café bucks the cultural trend managing to remain conceptually fresh and consistently delicious.

a photo of shrimp Cuban cuisine at Victor's Cafe

Cuban dish at Victor’s Cafe

What Lies Ahead for Cuban Cuisine?

What lies ahead for Cuban cuisine? How will it continue to evolve? “Everything depends on what happens next in Cuba,” says Julian Quevedo of Amor Cubano. Despite hardships and the scarcity of proper ingredients in Cuba, Cuban chefs have continued to create. Cuban-American chefs Alain Rivas, Jaime deRosa and James Beard Award winner, Douglas Rodriguez are leading culinary tours to Cuba. A thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. would have an interesting effect on the cuisine of both countries. I can’t help but wonder what that would look like.

Can’t get enough of Cuban food – outside Miami, that is. Check out these great cookbooks and learn how to make it yourself.  And if you’re going to Cuba and looking for places to eat, check out these unique Havana restaurants.

What’s your favorite Cuban dish? Below is a recipe for Cuban style roast pork.

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Cuban Style Roast Pork

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Cuban Style Roast Port or "Lechon Asado" is a traditional Cuban dish eaten during holidays and other festive occasions.
Recipe Image

Prep Time: minutes Cooking Time: minutes Total Time: minutes

Serves: 8 to 10

Recipe Ingredients

  • 1 leg of pork – 6 lbs
  • 1 full head of garlic
  • ¾ cup juice of bitter orange (naranja agria, available at Hispanic groceries)
  • 1 TBSP of oregano
  • 2 tsp of cumin
  • ½ tsp of ground black pepper
  • 1 to 2 TBSP of salt
  • 1 lb of onion, sliced in rounds
  • 1 tsp of soy sauce (optional)
  • 2 bay leaves

Recipe Instructions

  1. Perforate the leg with a long-prong fork in several places.
  2. Crush the garlic and combine salt, oregano, cumin, pepper, soy sauce, bay leaves and juice of bitter orange.
  3. Smear the leg with this marinade.
  4. Cover the leg with the onions slices and let it stand for at least 2 hours.
  5. Place the leg in a pre-heated oven at 325 degrees for about 4 hours.
  6. Serve with white rice and black beans.

Recipe Credit: Family recipe passed on from Talek Nantes's mother.

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