When I told an old West Sider that I'd been invited to Victor's Café, he recalled fondly his numerous dining experiences at the eatery's original site, adding, "it was the first place to serve Cuban food in New York." This year, in its third generation of family ownership, the city's oldest Cuban restaurant celebrates its golden anniversary in the space it has occupied in Manhattan's Theater District since 1980.
The story begins in 1957, the year Victor del Corral and his family left Cuba for New York. After six years of holding odd jobs around the city, Mr. del Corral, with the help of his wife, Eloína Ruíz de Ugarrio, finally realized his dream of introducing New Yorkers to Cuban cooking. In 1963, Victor opened his eponymous café at 240 Columbus Avenue (at 71st Street), whereupon, it became one of Gotham's most celebrated dining spots. As the years progressed, additional generations of the family entered the scene.
In 1972, Sonia Zaldivar joined her father's culinary team to initiate "the evolution of Cuban cuisine." Embracing the Nuevo Latino trend, she revised many of the patriarch's recipes, making them lighter and more healthful. Her introduction of olive oil and pan searing, for example, added a moderno flair to Victor's traditional fare, and helped to lighten the perception of heavy Cuban food.
Sonia continues to play an active role in the operation of the restaurant, albeit "via satellite" from Miami. Her daughter Monica is now at the helm, adding her charm and effervescence to the family's longstanding tradition of hospitality. Keeping apace with the times, Victor's is not your grandfather's Cuban café—unless, of course, you happen to be Monica Zaldivar. The ambiance is contemporary and sophisticated—a festive, yet elegant setting that would seem to befit a modern-day Bogie and Bacall.
We entered the restaurant to the stress-melting strains of Cuban music (performed by a trio in the Cuba Lounge), and were seated in the Skylight Room, a relaxing space with the insouciant feel of a patio. Its palm trees, colorful art along the wall, oscillating ceiling fans, and large windows to the sky transported us into a tropical world far from New York.
Our captain, Armando, a 13-year veteran of Victor's Café, navigated us ably through our culinary tour of Cuba. He and his team pampered us with exemplary service that was informative, ingratiating, and most of all, attentive without being intrusive.
We started with a couple of drinks to put us into the proper spirit, so to speak. Because Victor's Signature Mojito headed the list of cocktails, I had to give it a try. The combination of Atlantico Rum, fresh lime, mint leaves, and simple syrup yielded a potent and delicious apéritif. A swizzle stick of fresh sugar cane created a stir of sweetness. My Comestaccomplice's sangría—a blend of red wine, triple sec, brandy, gin, fresh squeezed juice, and oranges—included a Cuban twist: guava! This unusual ingredient added a delightful balance to the sangría's citrus flavors. While the libations were a bit sweeter than comparable ones elsewhere, the sugar in both drinks tasted very pure, clean, and smooth.
Our appetizers began with Mariquitas de Plátano, addictive homemade green plantain chips, accompanied by a salsa of tomatoes, red peppers, and a habañero or two for mo' heato. The piquancy of the red sauce provided a savory offset to the deep-fried sweetness of the mariquitas. Ah, but this was just the beginning.
Along with the mariquitas, the 50th anniversary prix fixe Taste of Cuba menu comprises four appetizers. Yes, four! Bartolito is one of the most popular. It's a sweet-plantain tower, filled with roast Berkshire pork, olives, and raisins, served over a zesty black bean sauce, and topped with goat cheese (of which I'd have enjoyed an additional crumble). My first bite convinced me of its superiority.
The final item on our sampler plates was the Chorizo Español, a Spanish sausage made from chopped pork and pork fat, spiced with smoked pimentón (paprika) to add both flavor and color. (Its taste is vaguely similar to that of pepperoni.) The chorizo is sautéed in olive oil with onions, red peppers, and olives to make this delectable tapa a bit less sinful.
We weren't finished with our starters, however. The next appetizing installment was Ceviche de Pargo, a superbly executed dish of chopped fresh Florida red snapper, marinated with lime juice, onions, and garlic, served over mango and avocado, and topped with shoestring sweet potato fries. This harmonious combination of contrasting flavors and textures—salty, savory, citrusy, sweet, soft, and crunchy—was exquisito. It was abundantly clear as to why this is one of Victor's most popular starters. The Ceviche de Pargo was, as Armando aptly described it, perfect.
But wait, there was yet one more starter: Taquitos con Lechón, a Cuban variant of Mexican tacos. This dish added an element of fun because it required assembly and could be eaten with one's hands. Armando deftly wrapped the soft yuca (cassava) tortillas around a pork hash that had been sautéed in olive oil with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and raisins. We both enjoyed the tortilla's subtle flavor, along with its light chewiness and silkiness. The filling was very flavorful, and the salsa complemented it well. It would be interesting to try these tortillas with a variety of different fillings.
After a second mojito, it was time for our entrées. The Taste of Cuba menu includes a triadic sampling of Victor's signature mains.
My fork was drawn initially to the house specialty, Ropa Vieja (literally, "old clothes"). This popular Cuban mainstay features shredded Black Angus skirt steak simmered in garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Seated on a bed of mashed plantains in a diminutive, tuliplike basket of plantain slices, the presentation could not have been more appealing. The meat was perfectly moist, with a rich underpinning of red peppers.
While I greatly enjoyed the foregoing dish, my favorite was the Lechón Asado al Estilo de Puerto Boniato. The hand-carved roast suckling pig, marinated in sour orange, olive oil, garlic, and herbs was flavorful, tender, and succulent. A delicious piece of crispy skin added an exquisite crowning touch. I'd gladly order this dish again.
My Comestaccomplice, on the other hand, raved about the Camarones Enchilados. While the large shrimp were above average, the zesty creole sauce of tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, thyme, and white wine was a standout. Its rich, savory flavors were seamless; nothing was out of place. This was by far her favorite among the entrée samples.
Yuca con Mojo was one of the accompaniments to the trio of mains. Tangy onions and garlic in olive oil gave the highly starchy chunks of boiled cassava their mojo. And what Cuban meal would be complete without Plátanos Maduros Fritos (fried sweet plantains), black beans, and rice?
We sipped on another round of mojitos before dessert. While my Mojito Passion, made with Don Q rum and passion fruit, was sweeter than the previous quaffs, it afforded my palate an impassioned transition to the course ahead. Equally sweet was my companion's refreshing Mojito de Sandía, mixed with Bacardi Grand Melón and fresh watermelon.
The Taste of Cuba Dessert Trio included one of the finest examples of its kind anywhere: an outstanding flan. Its subtle, minimally sweetened flavors of egg and vanilla, together with a rich, creamy texture, made Victor's Flan de Huevo ethereal. This Cuban-style egg custard literally melted in our mouths. It's difficult to describe just how good it was. Also included was the Guayabitas de María, a warm guava cobbler with a buttercrumb topping, capped by an eggshell-shaped scoop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Freshly baked and well prepared, this sweet dessert is Victor's most popular. An exceptional rice pudding, or Arroz con Leche (literally, "rice with milk") rounded out the trio. With strong influences of cinnamon, it had an interesting flavor we were unable to identify at first. Finally, Armando identified it as a touch of anisette. Although neither of us is particularly fond of anise, its subtle inclusion really did enhance this dish.
We ended the sweet course with Churros con Tres Salsas, Cuban-style "doughnuts," sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, accompanied by chocolate, dulce de leche, and condensed milk sauces. Having a crispy exterior and a soft, moist interior, the churros were tasty with or without the sauces—and splendid with coffee. They afforded a delightful conclusion to our sumptuous culinary voyage to Cuba.
Just as Victor had pioneered fine Cuban dining in New York 50 years ago, his daughter and granddaughter are blazing the trail toward brighter and lighter Cuban cooking today. It's a golden legacy of which Mr. del Corral would rightly be very proud.
236 West 52nd Street
(between Broadway & Eighth Av)
Theater District, Manhattan (map)