It's been nearly two decades since Hard Grove Cafe opened, and in that time, the Cuban-themed restaurant has evolved into a place where locals gather to see art exhibits and dance to live music. Of course, the biggest draw is still the authentic Cuban cuisine. Diners can dig into seafood mofongo?roasted chicken glazed with guava-infused barbecue sauce?and tangy ropa vieja, amid other exotic dishes. Vegetarian-friendly alternatives are available, along with sandwiches and burgers for diners who are afraid to use forks. Bartenders whip up refreshing mojitos and cosmos for accompaniment. Sundays bring an extensive brunch with optional bottomless bloody marys and mimosas.
The story of Sophie's Cuban Cuisine is not the story of a family of Cuban restaurateurs passing down recipes between generations. The road to the first Sophie's location and the ones that followed was longer and more unpredictable than that. Its founders—the Luna family—arrived in New York from Lima, Peru, and started out scratching together capital by selling Peruvian food from carts at New York City soccer fields. At the time, however, their native cuisine might have seemed a little too out of the ordinary for the city's palate, so the Lunas began to do some research: what kind of menu could form the ideal home for their love of hearty portions and fresh ingredients?
With the help of Havana-trained chef Eduardo Morgado, they found the answer. The Cuban recipes at the spot they opened up were wildly popular. Their reputation grew with each roast-pork-and-ham sandwich served, and by 2001 they were operating four different Sophie's locations. But then came September 11, which demolished two outposts near the World Trade Center. A third was gobbled up by a landlord who bought them out. In the face of these setbacks, the Lunas did what they'd always done: roll up their sleeves and keep working. Today, they've planted the seeds for a franchise they expect to populate the entire East Coast with the aroma of sizzling plantains.
Their Cuban sandwich is still a customer favorite, as are pernil sandwiches with roast pork, sweet plantains, and Sophie's signature green sauce (also available bottled, although the exact recipe is kept secret, hidden at the bottom of an enormous vat of oxtail stew). In a 2008 New York Times review, Pete Wells accordingly called Sophie's a destination for "authentic sandwich bliss," and for piquant roast turkey "worth eating far, far more often than once a year." Empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or guavas often precede entrees of chicken fricassee or oxtail stew. The batidos (milkshakes) conclude meals on a relatively healthy note, blended from tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, and passion fruit.
The year was 1969. In east and central Harlem, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans began to demand that their children’s schools address their cultural heritage in all its diversity. In response, the school district appointed artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz to create educational materials. But instead of writing textbooks, Ortiz founded El Museo del Barrio New York, a nonprofit that originally showcased work that reflected the Puerto Rican diaspora throughout a series of brownstones and storefronts.
Today, El Museo del Barrio New York has a spacious permanent home and an expansive permanent collection of 6,500 pieces of Caribbean, Latino, and Latin American art. Of those, 1,500 capture the postwar struggles and triumphs of the Latino community through paintings, photographs, and mixed-media works mostly created by New-York-based artists. Other galleries showcase 20th- and 21st-century fine-art prints from Mexico and Puerto Rico, more than 80 Mexican and Guatemalan masks, and pan-Caribbean archeological objects such as Johnny Depp’s authentic pirate costume.
El Museo del Barrio New York honors the Latino community not only through art, but also through annual cultural celebrations such as the Day of the Dead and the Three Kings Day Parade. The museum also hosts talks with exhibiting artists, monthly screenings of new films from the Americas, and a monthly spoken-word series that features Latino poets.
For more than 20 years, Havana NY has served as an outpost of Cuba in Midtown. The menu bursts with Cuban and Caribbean ingredients such as oxtail, creole spices, tropical fruit, yellow rice, and plantains. In a 2000 New York Times review, Eric Asimov praised the "tasty, inexpensive food in pleasant surroundings," including fish that was "moist and subtly flavored, not the sort of dish that would succeed in an assembly-line kitchen." In addition to tilapia, catfish, and salmon, there is shrimp in tequila-mango sauce, marinated pork, grilled chicken, and ropa vieja, shredded beef simmered in creole sauce. Chefs labor over creative plate presentations, making unexpectedly pretty artwork from a cuisine known for its love of fried and stewed foods. Cuban musicians and dancers parade across paintings on the walls—and, sometimes, through the restaurant during live salsa performances. In the absence of special entertainment, low lighting, exposed brick walls, and candle-topped tables create a ruggedly romantic atmosphere that concentrates diners' attention on the food, the fruity margaritas, and their dining companions, or the empanadas they drew little guacamole faces on.
From crisp croquetas de jamon to beef-filled empanaditas, the Cuban-style tapas at Agozar Restaurant and Lounge come flavored with the same rich, Caribbean spices that fill the childhood memories of its co-owners, siblings Gerardo Perez and Diana Mastrodimos.
?We?re from a Cuban family, [with] a Cuban grandma," Perez said. "We lived in Miami for some time, so we had traditional Cuban food almost every day. Our dad also worked in Cuban restaurants in NYC, like Victor?s Cafe, so we had that upbringing."
But in recent years, the brother-and-sister team has expanded their menu beyond the classics they remember from childhood. Today, they also serve "Nuevo-Cubano" dishes that draw on influences from Spain, Mexico, and even China, reflecting the full cultural diversity of modern Cuban cuisine.
Dishes to Discover
Those familiar with Cuban cuisine will easily recognize classic dishes at Agozar, including pressed cubaniche sandwiches, shredded ropa vieja, and citrus-marinated lechon. But there are dishes here that may surprise even the most seasoned palate. A few highlights:
Ginger-glazed "Chino-Cubano" salmon with vegetable fried rice
In the Press
* New York Magazine recommends the tapas-like small plates, which are "vibrant with spices and emboldened by fresh ingredients." * The New York Times notes the spot's "lengthy list of flavored mojitos," which draw in muddled-drink enthusiasts and also people who love to read lengthy lists.
The sound of mojitos and caipirinhas clinking fades into the rhythm of salsa and merengue tunes at Havana Alma de Cuba every night. At the heart of the restaurant, the kitchen prepares a rich spread of Cuban, Latin, and Spanish dishes rated very good to excellent by Zagat and recommended by New York Magazine. Chef Gerardo Tlapa marinates fresh fish in citrus juices to create daily ceviche specials and prepares traditional entrees by braising shredded skirt steak in tomato and covering pork chops with a rich chorizo-tomatillo sauce. Flickering votive candles and a wall-size mural of Cuban streets and musicians playing conga drums create a lively atmosphere in the dining room. Beyond the bustle inside sits an outdoor patio with seating for private events including wedding rehearsals and staring contests.
Live music from Son, Mambo and Rumba serenades guests Thursday–Saturday nights. Tuesday and Wednesday nights bring a different sort of show. Special guest Jose Martinez crafts complimentary cigars for each diner, expertly rolling each one before their eyes. Martinez draws on 30 years of experience that began with his training in the Dominican Republic and continues in his current position as a cigar maker at La Rosa Cubana, which Ciagar Aficionado calls "the old grand dame of New York's mini cigar factories."