"We are the oldest restaurant on our block. We try to keep a low profile while doing the best we can, and every day we appreciate that we are living in this country, ” said Guadalupe, who has been married to Rafael Rivas — affectionately known as Papa Bear — for over forty years. The restaurant was founded by three Cuban cousins, who took Rafael under their wing when he came to the U. S. from the Dominican Republic in his twenties. With their encouragement, he started out as a dishwasher, then a lineman, and eventually ran the show up front. When the cousins decided to retire in the mid-1980s but could not find a buyer, Rafael stepped up to the plate and asked if he could take over Margon. With years of hard work and small payments, Rafael has upheld the cousins' tradition of serving Cuban favorites, such as roasted pork, oxtail, fried sweet plantains, and rice and beans to the line of customers that stretches out the door on any given day. Little by little, each member of Rafael's family was brought from the DR to join the fold. Guadalupe — who met her husband while they were both on a tour of the Statue of Liberty — along with Rafael's brother, sister, sister-in-law, and many of their children — are all part of this warm and loving family affair. Papa Bear's smile lights up Margon — and his entire family smiles with him. They work like a well-oiled machine, serving a constant flow of customers ranging from construction workers on break, to ladies meeting for a leisurely lunch, to a gentleman in his eighties who never misses a day to sit down and enjoy his usual. According to Guadalupe, “We have the best customers. They come from all over the world. We have every accent. They visit once and then they tell their friends.
While strolling down 46th, I came across a throng of people spilling out of Havana Central. Cuban music was playing, people were dancing, and drinks were flowing. Apparently, I was witnessing the celebration of Cuban Independence Day. And a party it surely was! Inside, the space transported me to the Caribbean isle in the 1950s, filled with palm trees, cold drinks, and seafood. For a short time, I felt worlds away from a side street of Manhattan. On another visit, when the atmosphere was somewhat calmer, I had the pleasure of chatting with the manager while sipping on their signature drinks: mojito, sangria, and the elaborate 'Birds of Paradise. ' He explained to me that it is their hope that the restaurant recreates the festive energy of expatriate life in a pre-Castro Cuba.
Opened in 1963, Victor's Cafe has a long history of serving traditional Cuban food in an elegant yet relaxed environment. The tropical decor conjures up fantasies of dining in Havana as does the menu, which features Cuban classics such as Ropa Vieja and Lechon Asado. Run by Victor del Corral's daughters, this family-owned restaurant has retained its charm over the years, although long-time patrons bemoan the fact that they can no longer smoke their Cuban cigars in the Lounge.
The blending of Cuban and Chinese culture at Calle Dao is evident from the moment one steps into the restaurant in which Cuban cigar boxes and fresco walls neighbor Chinese vases and figurines. When we stopped by, we had the chance to sit down to chat with owner Marco Britti, who is also responsible for the innovative interior decoration. He told us that the décor is meant to “transport you back to Havana. ” With meticulous attention to each detail including a gate patterned exactly like a traditional style of door in Havana, and intricately distressed wooden chairs, the space is remarkably cohesive. Marco’s own life has been somewhat of a fusion as well. Originally from Naples, Italy, he moved to New York in 1996. He told us, “as an immigrant I left Italy to go to New York. So I know what it is like to leave everything behind, try something out and make a business out of it. ” While pursuing a music career – Marco plays the drums – he also worked part time in restaurants. In 1999 he took a trip to Cuba, and ended up living in the Chinatown of Havana for nine months. While there, he learned about the wave of Cuban-Chinese restaurants and was struck by the Chinese influence on the cooking culture. Upon returning to New York, he found that there had not been much development of Cuban-Chinese fusion in the city, which furthered his interest in the restaurant industry. He went on to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café, and later Favela Cubana, both of which presented dishes from different cultures side-by-side. The complete fusion was only realized when he went on to open Calle Dão in the late summer of 2014, partnering with executive chef Humberto Guallpa. Marco said that his situation now is not something he would have ever predicted, and remarks that “it’s interesting to see how you can cross paths in life like that. All of a sudden you are doing something else. ”
A specialty jalapeno sauce graces every table in this white subway tile-walled eatery, completed by the festive image of a joyous woman. In the background plays light Cuban music, and on the hot plates sit appetizing eats fresh from the stove. The homemade empanadas, stuffed cornhusks, and crunchy croquettes bring strong fumes to the air, recalling their Cuban roots. Since opening the first Sophie's Cuban Cuisine in June of 1997, the Luna family has adhered to high quality standards, largely imparted by Master Cuban Chef Eduardo Morgado, stepfather to Sophie. "Made today, gone today - we do not reheat things here, " explained manager Mike Mendoza, who is also husband to Sophie. He told me that he recently left his job on Wall Street to join the family business and opened this restaurant on 68th in 2015. It was nice to learn that though growing in size throughout the city, Sophie's retains its intimacy by being largely family-run.