Years ago, long before my husband and I moved to New York – before he even was my husband, in fact – we took a trip from where we lived in Massachusetts to New York for my birthday. He had already lived in New York for eight years before moving away and meeting me, so he was very much at home in the city.
As for me, up to that point, I’d lived pretty much all my life within a 20-minute drive from the very hospital in which I was born. I wasn’t a hayseed, but I felt more than a little like the storied country mouse, especially compared to my city mouse of a fiancé.
So, on our first night there, when he said, “oh, we should go to La Caridad and get some Cuban-Chinese food,” I didn’t want to appear as backwater as I felt, so I just smiled and nodded like, yeah, totally, Cuban-Chinese… who doesn’t like that?
In 1847, Spanish settlers brought the first Chinese laborers to Cuba and put them work in the sugarcane fields to replace slave labor. After completing an eight-year contract, the Chinese laborers were free to settle permanently in Cuba, and many did. By 1940, Havana’s Chinatown was the largest barrio chinoin all of Latin America, with 30,000 residents and over 40 blocks of Chinese-owned restaurants and other businesses.
After the Communist revolution in 1959, Chinese and Cubans alike fled Cuba. Many emigrated to the United States â€” Miami and New York, mostly â€” and, less so, to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and other nearby Latin American countries.
Those who ended up in New York settled mostly in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Cuban-Chinese restaurants quickly sprang up and flourished there, but as the neighborhood gentrified and new generations looked outside the restaurant business for careers, the restaurants dwindled until only a handful remained, including La Caridad, where I found myself trying to look blasé, like this fusion of cultures was old hat to me.
In truth, I had no idea what to expect. Chinese food I understood, but at that point in my life, the closest I’d come to Cuban food was, well, eating Dominican food. Once. Not that I would have said as much, lest any of the New Yorkers at the surrounding tables overhear (because, I don’t know, then they’d come over and mock me for being less cool than they were or something. Insecurities know no logic).
Although it seemed almost bizarre when I walked in, as soon as I was handed a menu, the combination of Cuban and Chinese made a lot more sense when I could see the staple foods common to both: rice, black beans, egg dishes, roast pork, et cetera. Even though it was some six years ago, I still remember I ordered the string beans (as I was vegetarian at the time), some fried rice (which just tickled me to find it was made with yellow rice), and, the only Dominican food I remembered eating before, fried plantains.
(Man. Just look at those. Sweet. Salty. Fried. That’s my brain’s pleasure center trifecta, served up on a plate.)
We stuffed ourselves, paid the bill, and got a cup of their (incredibly good) cafe con leche to drink on the walk back to our hotel, and although I didn’t dash out into the street and shout, “Yes! I have found my true home!” or anything, something in me shifted. There was something about this meal that had just thrilled me. It was foreign without being intimidating, it tasted fantastic (and was cheap besides), it had a history behind it that I found fascinating… and over the next couple of months, I started to think, if this is what living in New York is like, maybe… I could actually move to New York and live here.
As much as I’d like to end this post with a cheery And that’s just what we did! The end! in truth, it took a lot longer than that , including, at one point, actually moving to Brooklyn, then moving to Florida within a year, until we finally moved back this past summer, more than five years after this trip.
But over those five years, my husband and I (and later, our kid) came to the city whenever we could, and we’d trek up to La Caridad, always order some plantains, and think, oh yeah, I’d almost forgotten, this is why we still want to move to New York.
As always, to read more about my life in New York, visit my blog at gezellig-girl.com.
All photos: Plate of the Day