In the years following the Cuban Revolution, many of the country’s Chinese immigrants traveled north, settling in cities like Miami and New York. More than 50 years later (and over a century after Chinese immigrants first arrived in Cuba), both New York City’s Cuban-Chinese restaurants and Havana’s Chinatown are slowly fading, which is why Marco Britti’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. Last month, the Italian restaurateur (Favela Cubana) opened Calle Dão (38 West 39th Street, 212-221-9002), a vintage-styled homage to this niche mash-up cuisine.
According to our server, the bulk of traffic here comes from leisurely work lunches and happy hours that bleed into dinner, which makes sense given the restaurant’s central Manhattan location. The restaurant’s name, a mix of Spanish (Calle) and Mandarin (Dão) translates to “knife street,” a notorious stretch of Havana’s Chinatown.
The long dining room evokes Hemingway’s Havana, with distressed walls, natural wood, ceiling fans, and giant hanging headlights suspended over the bar. Drinks are strong and sweet, including a mojito muddled with longan fruit and a tart concoction called “opium” mixing Michter’s bourbon, tamarind, and poppy seed tincture. I found the fruit juice-laden sangria too syrupy, but the two women sitting beside me couldn’t get enough. They rolled up the sleeves of their pant suits to mope into a shared plate of pan-fried noodles. “Of course he resents me, I lost $750,000 cash!” is lent a particularly despondent timbre with a mouth full of baby bok choy.
Chef Humberto Guallpa racked up kitchen time with heavyweights like Mario Batali and Marcus Samuelsson, and was also the chef of defunct East Village Nordic restaurant Vandaag. His training shows when coaxing nuance and velvety texture from cucumbers for a cold soup. Vegetal and pure, some spoonfuls zig with smoked chili oil, others zag with hits of grated ginger. And his chimichurri-braised skirt steak shreds apart like ropa vieja, served over rice and beans.
Most of the city’s old school Asian-Latin restaurants (La Caridad 78, Flor De Mayo), serve the two cuisines separately under one roof, and some of Guallpa’s dishes, like crunchy pig’s ears glazed with ginger and soy and fried plantain tostones, do offer straightforward representations of their respective cuisines. Smaller plates tend to stick to this playbook.
But Calle Dão also dabbles in “Chino Latino” fusion. Duck empanadas come with ginger-scallion glaze, the shredded bird meat a fine bridge for both cultural influences. The chef air-dries and roasts Cornish game hens in Peking fashion, placing the golden brown bone-in hunks over rice, pivoting towards Latin America with a sour tamarillo salsa. Classic Cuban roasted pork, or lechon asado, sits over quinoa fried “rice” accented by sharp ginger-cilantro sauce. The dishes find common ground across spices and flavor profiles.
Desserts include a five spice-inflected tres leches cake, flan with ginger chili cream, and a baked plantain served in the peel, its blackened skin bowed like a grand Viking ship and covered in a scoop of sesame ice cream. You’ll find no fortune cookies or cut up fruit here.
Even if Calle Dão were a more faithful, barebones resurrection of this style of restaurant, though, its existence would be no less important. In bringing the fading, indigenous cuisine back into contemporary dining conversation, Mr. Britti and Mr. Guallpa have become its coincidental torchbearers. In these first few weeks, they’re doing a formidable job.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 30, 2014