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."
“The big front windows were opened to the warm breezes, and as we watched the neighborhood passing by, listening to the shouts of schoolchildren, high school flirtations in Spanglish and other lively sounds of the city, we agreed that we could not possibly have anything better to do at that moment than sit there.” So wrote Eric Asimov in a 2004 New York Times review of Cafecito, which, in addition to the ambiance, praised the “very good” food, including a “fine, traditional Cubano sandwich.” Even when the windows are closed, the petite double storefront maintains a sunny feel with walls of buttercup yellow and warm raw brick hung with mirrors and art in exuberantly oversize frames. On one side sits a long counter where baristas steam café con latte and muddle mint for mojitos. On the other side, diners dig into shrimp with garlic and citrus or the Cuban-style stew of pulled flank steak and peppers known as ropa vieja, named after the Spanish phrase for “old clothes” for the recommended attire for slurping without fear of spills.
Named after a classic Cuban love song, Guantanamera celebrates the culture and traditions of Old Havana, dishing up authentic cuisine, complimentary hand-rolled cigars, and live music. Homemade dishes such as pressed roast-pork sandwiches and yellow rice with shrimp share menu real estate with elegant entrees of braised oxtails with mashed plantains. Bartenders sweeten mojitos with sugar cane or prolonged exposure to greeting cards, and they pour more than 30 types of aged rum sourced from South America and the Caribbean.
On Friday and Saturday nights, cigar expert Juan de la Cruz enlists traditional tools to hand-roll Dominican tobacco inside thick, complimentary cigars, and patrons can hone their salsa, rumba, and cha-cha moves to live music Tuesday–Sunday at around 9 p.m. Inside the eatery, exposed-brick walls encroach on vibrant, hand-painted murals depicting idyllic Cuban scenes, such as dancers, musicians, and city streets. A parade of candles casts a gentle glow upon crisp white tablecloths, and rattan-covered ceiling fans make balloons lament their helium innards.
With its simple blend of well-made Cuban cuisine and candlelit ambiance, Cafe Cortadito captures the Hemingway-esque romance of pre-revolution Havana. Clad in guayabera shirts, waitstaff bustle among the wooden bar, open kitchen counter, and candlelit tables. They load tables with classic dishes, such as braised oxtail in a red wine and tomato stew, or the picadillo cua cua?ground sirloin steak in a sweet stir fry of veggies, raisins, and olives, crowned with a golden fried egg. Tying everything together is a musical score that fits the mood. Tunes from the Buena Vista Social Club, and occasionally members of the popular group, burst out of the speakers. New York magazine says Caf? Cortadito has the "unpretentious, hospitable aura of a home kitchen, with the chef toiling away behind the counter and his wife greeting guests and taking orders."
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.