Eating in Cuban
Lisa Maya Knauer
Cubanía (Cubanness) is in vogue now throughout the United States, perhaps no place more so than in New York. 1 The “boom Cubano” is perhaps most visible—or audible—in the musical landscape. Jazz at Lincoln Center recently featured a miniseries on Afro-Cuban sounds. According to New York Times music critic Peter Watrous, in 1998 almost every week a different musical group from Cuba played at New York clubs. 2 And in the rapidly shifting microclimate of New York's restaurant scene, what we might call with apologies to Appadurai (1997) its “gastroscape,” there has been a recent flurry of new Cuban and Cuban-inflected restaurants, ranging from the ultrachic Asia de Cuba, a sleek, slightly gimmicky place that combines Asian-Latin “fusion” cuisine, mandarin-jacketed wait staff, and Cuban music, to Little Havana, which serves up more easily recognizable Cuban fare in humbler surroundings (Asimov 1998; Brooks 1998).
However, alongside this new-found interest in cubanía lies another, partially invisible landscape. When I moved to New York over twenty years ago, the Cuban-Chinese diners seemed a uniquely New York institution. And Cuban restaurants have been a constant presence in New York for decades. Scattered throughout the city are numerous well-established neighborhood establishments—La Rosita and Caridad on the Upper West Side, the National in the East Village, Sam's Chinita in Chelsea. But the ubiquitousness of Cuban eateries is more than just a curiosity. If we analyze when and where these restaurants were established, whom they have served over the years, and how they position themselves in the broader ethnoscape of