Before 2000, the city was lush with Cuban-Chinese restaurants. Gradually, these excellent, inexpensive institutions have disappeared from the neighborhoods they once inhabited, including Chelsea’s Eighth Avenue, Broadway on the Upper West Side, and various main thoroughfares in the Bronx, Washington Heights, and Sunset Park. They numbered perhaps 50 at the height of their popularity. Now La Caridad 78, one of the last and best, is closed.
La Caridad 78 was founded in 1968 by Raphael Lee, who was born in Cuba. It stood for 52 years as a beacon on the Upper West Side’s busiest thoroughfare, and the patrons were a wonderfully mixed lot. Not only did regulars flock from surrounding blocks, but La Caridad 78 also hosted diners from remote neighborhoods, who’d drop in for its garlicky roast pork, wonton soup, chicken chow mein, crisp egg rolls bursting with vegetables, and ropa vieja, a classic Cuban dish of tender shredded beef.
Cuban-Chinese restaurants originated here in the years following the ascent of Fidel Castro (1953 to 1959), when Cuban-Chinese people immigrated to the United States. Many came to New York City, where a Cuban population had long flourished. The Chinese people were originally brought by sugar plantation owners to Cuba as indentured agricultural workers in the mid-19th century to replace enslaved Africans, and many intermarried with other Cubans over the next 100 years. At one time there were 100,000 people of Chinese heritage living on the island.
When they arrived in New York City, the Cuban Chinese faced a dilemma. The spoke Spanish rather than Chinese. Yet they looked Chinese, so they faced discrimination on two counts. What to do? Many opened restaurants, which had menus evenly divided between Cuban and Chinese dishes, thus appealing to a broad range of New Yorkers, especially Spanish speakers who appreciated both aspects of the menu and with whom the restaurateurs shared a common language. Some of the Chinese dishes on the menu had evolved back in Cuba; others were learned from Chinese-American restaurants here.
I must have tried 10 Cuban-Chinese restaurants in the 1980s, but La Caridad 78 was my favorite. I found the menus at these places fascinating, partly because the Chinese dishes (things like pepper steak, spare ribs in black bean sauce, and fried rice) appeared on one side of the menu, and the Cuban dishes (oxtails, avocado salad, and rice and beans) on the other; there was virtually no crossover.
In 1998 I went to Cuba to seek out the roots of the cuisine, visiting Havana’s Chinatown, a tourist destination with very few Cuban-Chinese people still working there. Chinese dishes, mainly stir-fries, had been transformed by a lack of common ingredients, so that shredded cucumbers were substituted for bean sprouts, and Maggi sauce for soy sauce. Main dishes often featured pork or chicken, commodities that were scarce in Cuba at the time, but that in Chinatown were being made available principally to visitors. Restaurants were scarce, and most were aimed at tourists. In New York, on the other hand, the cuisine was a staple for many locals.
The Lee family, Raphael and his descendants, ran La Caridad for more than a half century. The decor didn’t change much over that time. The walls were dark red, and the formica-topped tables arranged in rows with military precision; strings of tiny lights hung from above. Large color pictures of the food offerings were arrayed next to the kitchen pass-through, as if to tempt those unfamiliar with the hybrid cuisine. Right as you came in the door, an image of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, hovered.
Over the years, the cooks and waitstaff, originally Cuban Chinese, were replaced by more recent immigrants from China, who’d never lived in Cuba and were more adept at the Chinese side of the menu. Only one Cuban cook remained, Raphael Wong. The Chinese food improved, while the Cuban food declined, though dishes like chicharron de pollo (fried chicken) remained sterling, with a slight tang of vinegar. It consistently appeared on my favorite fried chickens list.
More importantly, at some point in the last century, lunch specials began to feature a mixture of Cuban and Chinese dishes, so that a plate of lechon asado might come with shrimp fried rice or an eggroll. This was a spectacular innovation.
The restaurant closed abruptly on Thursday, July 23, and its many fans never had a chance to make a final visit. I among them felt a particular loss because the restaurant had provided my first taste of Cuban food and taught me to love moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice). The menu stood as a symbol of our city’s culinary diversity, and the ideal that any immigrant could arrive, start a restaurant, and be appreciated by the general population.