On Eater’s list of 38 essential New York restaurants, a Cuban spot recently made the cut. I was hoping it would be Guantanamera, but Victor’s Cafe, which Robert Sietsema calls the city’s “most luxurious and venerable Cuban restaurant,” ended up winning out for now. It was a solid choice.
Victor del Corral, who ran restaurants in and around Havana before emigrating to the states, opened his namesake venue in 1963 on the Upper West Side. “Featuring robust Cuban food at affordable prices, the restaurant was routinely packed with an assortment of New Yorkers, including graying beatniks and Lincoln Center concertgoers as well as Cuban expatriates,” the New York Times wrote in its 2006 obituary for Del Corral. Victor’s relocated to its current home on 52nd street in 1980, where it’s currently run by Del Corral’s daughter and granddaughter, Sonia and Monica Zaldivar.
The restaurant is in good hands, though my empirical knowledge is limited to a few selections, particularly the ropa vieja. It’s a national dish of Cuba that involves pulled, slowly cooked beef. Sietsema calls Victor’s version “the most elegant” in New York, and it can be ordered by itself in a crock ($29), or in a nest of plantains, served adjacent to vaca frita ($32)
Order the ropa by itself. The vaca frita, skirt steak marinated in orange mojo, shredded and pan fried, doesn’t really pack the crisp browned edges that it needs; the meat is textureless and somewhat grey.
The ropa vieja, by contrast, easily ranks with Txikito’s as one of the city’s best. It’s a dish that traces its origins to the Sephardic Jews of Spain, possibly as early as the 15th century. Because cooking was (and still is) forbidden on the sabbath, the observant would prepare the hearty stew, which literally translates as “old clothes,” the night before. Old clothes is an accurate descriptor of the dish’s appearance: Ropa vieja is as twirl-able as spaghetti and takes on the look of wet rags.
The skirt steak absorbs the aromas and sugars of the vegetables with which it’s braised: tomatoes, garlic, onions, and peppers. They impart the meat with a profound sweetness and a savory mouthfeel. You eat this with rice and beans.
The flavors of the stew are cleaner and more balanced than the version at Guantanamera, but more traditional than at Txikito, where the upscale riff involves stuffing slow-cooked brisket into green peppers. And whenever things get too rich at Victor’s, I add a touch of Tabasco for acidity or mojo de ajo, Cuba’s famously pungent garlic sauce.
So guess what? I’m calling the $29 dish a BUY. And while I still prefer the music, crowds, and cocktails of Guatnamera, I’ll be back to Victor’s for Eater 38-worthy ropa vieja soon.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).