When the first wave of Chinese immigrants made its way to Cuba more than a century ago, those who made the journey were surely relieved to find that their adoptive country had a fondness for pork products. I certainly breathed a sigh — half palliation and half excitement — when the lechón asado found its way to our table during a recent meal at Calle Dão (38 West 39th Street, 212-221-9002). Although lacking the crackled skin typical of traditional lechón, which throws a whole hog to the flames, the hunk of roasted, fork-tender pork shoulder radiates unctuousness. Eggy, fried-rice-style quinoa anchors the plate, perfumed with a splash of sharp ginger-cilantro sauce. The dish may not resemble the kind of food owner Marco Britti envisioned for his midtown restaurant, but I’ll be the last to complain.
This is a nouveau tapestry woven of Asian and Latin American ingredients. It’s fusion cooking that excavates the glitter-coated tomb of 1990s hotspot Asia de Cuba. But before you go running for Murray Hill, consider chef Humberto Guallpa’s finessed approach, which deftly evades cliché. Calle Dão is a love letter to Cuban-Chinese cuisine and the restaurants along Calle Cuchillo — “Knife Street”; “dão” is Mandarin for knife — in the Chinatown of Havana, a city where Britti, an Italian drummer turned restaurateur, once lived. New York had its very own Cuban Chinatown: After the revolution, the city welcomed an influx of Chinese-Cubans, who settled around Chelsea and on the Upper West Side. For years both neighborhoods were home to dozens of greasy spoons, unique in that they served Chinese food and Cuban food in separate measure, side by side. Learning the story of Cuba’s Chinese settlers struck a chord with Britti, who’d left Naples for New York in 1996 before decamping to Cuba and eventually returning to the Big Apple to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café.
A fine-dining veteran, the Ecuadorian-born Guallpa wanted no part of an exercise in “authenticity,” so he and Britti agreed that the bulk of their menu would mix and match ingredients and techniques from both cultures, with a dose of greenmarket ethos to boot. The lechón is a perfect example of this conceit following through on execution — even if I do risk having my critic credentials revoked for admitting that I love Guallpa’s fried quinoa. God help me, but oatmeal gets a similarly tasty treatment in an entrée of strip steak marinated in hoisin sauce and cilantro. A few Calle Dão dishes do take the old-school, side-by-side approach, like shrimp empanadas dipped in a genre-appropriate sofrito and delectably crunchy pig’s ears glazed with sesame chile sauce.
Outfitted with a long, wood-paneled bar, ceiling fans, and distressed hanging lamps, the deep-set, faux-weathered haunt evokes Hemingway’s Havana in a way that manages to feel like homage rather than hokey.
Britti cultivates a charming, comfortable atmosphere welcome along this bland stretch of West 39th Street. A cheery front-of-house staff helps see to that, putting diners at ease with affability and strong drinks. Proprietary cocktails, which play fast and loose with topical ingredients like sesame oil and shiso leaves, succeed far better than syrupy sangria battered with fruit juices, a saccharine mockup of a mind-erasing Bourbon Street concoction. Should you find yourself pulling up a seat between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., stick to the happy “hour” menu, which dabbles in classic cocktails like mojitos, caipirinhas, and cuba libres — all mixed well.
Enough appetizers hit the $10-and-under mark to ensure that the bar stays plenty crowded while patrons dunk duck empanadas, oxtail croquettes, and mushroom spring rolls into zesty dipping sauces. Any or all are a better bet than the one-note shrimp ceviche, which is dragged down by a rubbery main ingredient. Soup specials are flawless fusion specimens with rich, lingering broths that exploit seasonal produce as much as possible. A deep bowl of heady duck noodle soup plumped up with pork belly and Chinese long beans has just the right touch of “farm-to-table” pizzazz; same goes for the five-spice butternut squash soup with smoked pumpkinseed oil.
Main course prices reach into the low $30s but offer hearty portions to match. When in doubt, go for goat: ground into thick patties topped with melted leeks and hoisin ketchup for a killer lunch burger, or served as a roasted neck at dinnertime, seasoned with coriander, fennel, and cumin over fried plantain tostones. The daytime sandwich, a cheffy number on brioche, plays barnyard Big Mac to Louro’s decorated Whopper of a brunch “Belly Goat” burger.
Some of Guallpa’s best work shows up during dessert, where a dense, buttery, five-spice tres leches takes the cake. Flan’s nearly flawless: The “spicy” crema that accompanies it bears no heat whatsoever, but the fudgy custard saves the dish. Until recently there was a goth banana split featuring a roasted plantain served in its blackened peel and topped with sesame ice cream, but the starchy fruit’s out of season and has been replaced with an apple pastry for fall.
Unlike its flashy forebears, Calle Dão attracts midtown worker bees instead of scenesters. As a result, the dining room’s busiest at lunch and after work and thinner come dinner. If there’s any justice, that will change as Times Square tourists and Empire State Building gawkers realize what they’ve got within walking distance. Cuban-Chinese restaurants are dying out as generations leave the industry in New York and Havana alike. As a paean to this whimsical, unique cuisine birthed, like America itself, from immigration and assimilation, Calle Dão triumphs. We have Britti and Guallpa to thank for such a noble resuscitation.