Where Cuban Food Seeks Its Future

Victor's Cafe. Photo Credit: Victor's Cafe, February 2014.

The classic look at Victor’s Cafe. (Photo Credit: Victor’s Cafe, February 2014.)

Contemporary Cuban cuisine is somewhat of an oxymoron, since political circumstances have halted Cuba’s culinary development. But Monica Zaldivar, the third generation familial owner of Victor’s Café in Midtown Manhattan, is determined to make it a thing. This desire to upgrade traditional Cuban food is a core mission of Victor’s Café, made possible by virtue of exile. “When it comes to the food,” says Zaldivar, Cubans “don’t have the resources we have here. We have the herbs, all the ingredients to make the most amazing cuisine.” Whereas in Cuba, “everything, like the cars, is stuck in the 1950s.” Zaldivar’s grandfather, Victor Del Corral, opened Victor’s Café in 1963. He wanted a restaurant that showcased his “interpretation of what Cuban cuisine would be if politics had not interfered with its growth,” as noted on the restaurant’s website. Now Zaldivar presides over the family business with an awareness of her family’s story as not simply a Cuban one, but a Cuban American one. Victor and his wife, Eloina Ruíz de Ugarrio, left Cuba in 1957. He did not speak English well and only made it to the third grade, but his success is evident in the restaurant’s display of photographs of celebrities and politicians who have dined at the Café. Bill Cosby sometimes pretended to be the host. Sitting in the restaurant’s lounge area under a painting of the boxer Roberto Duran, Victor’s best friend, Zaldivar drinks a glass of white wine. She is tiny and in charge, observing her employees and customers from the perch of the lounge bar. The room is decorated with so many scarlet red touches that even the air looks red. Black and white and sepia photographs of Cuba hang on the walls. Zaldivar catches up with a friend at the bar and attends to business as it arises, interchanging between Spanish and English. “I love hosting,” she said, “I want people to feel like they are coming to a house.”

Monica Zaldivar with former boxer Roberto Duran. Victor and Duran were best friends. Photo credit: Victor's Cafe, October 2013.

Monica Zaldivar with the former boxer Roberto Duran. Victor and Duran were best friends. (Photo credit: Victor’s Cafe, October 2013.)

The main courses on the menu are divided into two categories: traditional Cuban food and what one server called “Cuban nouveau” cuisine. Dishes in the latter category are more cosmopolitan, mixing Cuban and international flavors: the red snapper has a camisa, a shirt, of plantains and the filet mignon comes with adobo, fire roasted peppers and onions. The classic ropa vieja, which directly translates into old clothes but refers to a dish of pulled skirt steak in a pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic sauce, is a customer favorite, according to Zaldivar. In her previous life, Zaldivar worked as an estate-planning lawyer in Miami. A combination of fatigue, grief over Victor’s death in 2006, and whimsy, she said, led her back to the family restaurant. “I was visiting my sister here, and I’m like, ‘I think I’m going to do this,’” she recalled, speaking in staccato bursts, “I went back to Miami, and I quit my job that Monday.” Justo Rodriguez, 51, a server who has been working at Victor’s Café for 20 years, has seen the restaurant, and Zaldivar, grow up. He said Victor was a like a papa to him, to all of the employees, and he sees Victor’s gregarious yet business savvy sensibilities in Zaldivar, “That kind of thing is inherited.” Growing up in New York, Zaldivar said she had one Latin American friend—a Colombian.  “All my other friends were like Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, or like very Caucasian,” she said. The ethnic diversity of New York City made Zaldivar feel she “wasn’t the same,” she said. In Miami, where she moved at the age of ten, Zaldivar found her kin: “Every single one of my friends was Cuban. So it was like, ‘these are my people.’” The first time she visited Cuba was in September 2011. She visited her great-grandmother’s grave on behalf of Victor, who was never able to return to his home country after he emigrated to New York City. Zaldivar said she values her exposure to so many cultures at a young age, but living among Cubans gave her an affirmable identity, “This is who I am. I am Cuban American.”

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