Aside from some enclaves in deep Miami, there’s never been any doubt about the African side of Cuba. It sings forth in the rhythms of rumba and peeks from behind Catholic saints in religious processions and Lucumi ceremonies. It certainly turns up in the cooking pots in all corners of the island and wherever its food is transported. I’m used to having my comidas cubanas at places with stools and counters or Formica tables and names like Versailles and Metropol, places where guayaberas are de rigueur and it’s always 1958. But every once and a while I head to Gotham’s venerable Cuban for some pig and plátano.
Before there was Asia de Cuba and Isla and Douglas Rodriguez, there was Victor’s: first on the Upper West Side and later in its present location on 52nd Street. I’d almost forgotten, until an out-of-town friend lodged in the hotel next door and expressed a hankering for pig and garlic. In a trice we were downstairs, sipping potent mojitos fragrant with yerba buena. The room had changed little since my last visit. Dark woods conjured up a far-off colonial past and an occasional palm stood in for tropical greenery. Longer on families than the usual theater district spot, the room seemed primed more for quinceañeras and bridge-and-tunnel daters than drama devotees. The menu too seemed preserved from the Batista era. My guests continued with mojitos, while I opted for an avocado salad ($7). Half a mega alligator pear arrived thinly sliced, splayed out on a bed of watercress, garnished with a puff of marinated onions, and dressed with a tangy dressing.
Then came the pig. My anthropologist buddy was dancing in her chair while digging into the slab of sweetly tender lechón with ample crackling, served Cuban style with multiple starches: a yuca con mojo, cassava under a garlicky vinaigrette, and rice ($18.50). I opted for crunch and savored the masitas, bits of deep-fried marinated porker with just enough fat that mixed crisp and succulent to perfection ($15.75). The holdout stood her ground with rabo encendido ($21.50), a spicy oxtail, but admitted that while the heat was just fine and the tail tender, she didn’t get our swine-induced pitch of satisfaction. We placated her with another glass of La Fiole du Pape ($55), a wonderful Châteauneuf du Pape that I’d unearthed on the wine list. The crook-necked bottle had lubricated some of my more memorable tropical meals and was worth the hefty expense. Its ruby nectar played its role perfectly, and we left basking in the glow of fellowship and food.
The discovery of the wine made my next guests a sure thing. After all, my African family had introduced me to the pope’s flask several decades ago in Abidjan. Theophile’s eyes lit up at the mention of the wine that accompanied the invitation. Again it did the job well, and we examined our menus with roseate conviviality. Theophile went immediately for the chorizo, and enjoyed the toothsomely coarse sausage that paired so perfectly with vinegary marinated onions and the mild piquancy of pimiento-stuffed olives ($9). Theodora made a main out of jicaritas, plantain “gourds” filled with spicy shrimp and topped with a spicy peanut-coconut sauce ($10). After we’d gotten the chile bumped up to her level, she scarfed them down, savoring the sweet, hot grit of the sauce. Theophile’s ropa vieja lacked the African touch, but the garlic-rich creole sauce of onions, tomatoes, and green peppers made the old clothes taste like new. I was naughty and returned to the classic lechón—to test for consistency, natch. It was as sublime as always. It’s the reason I’ll keep coming back to Victor’s.