Cuba Libre!

Julie Besonen

Interest in Cuban food is heating up thanks to the thaw in US-Cuban relations. Émigrés have been running home-style restaurants and lunch counters in New York City for decades, fusing Spanish, Portuguese, Caribbean, African and Creole flavors. Robust and affordable, Cuban cuisine is well represented in Queens at the legendary Rincon Criollo and in Midtown, where the humble Margon draws long lines every day for hefty Cuban sandwiches and, on Wednesdays, for its pernil (garlic-infused pork roast) special. Guantanamera, also in Midtown, and Havana Central, near Times Square, are splashier venues for celebratory meals. Downtown spots like Cafe Cortadito, Cafecito and the 24-hour Coppelia are also terrific for mojitos, slow-cooked meats and soft, dreamy flan with a caramelized lid. Our slideshow singles out five other Cuban-inflected favorites across the City, from Spanish Harlem to NoLIta to Bed-Stuy.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

Amor Cubano
2018 Third Ave., 212-996-1220, East Harlem, Manhattan
Conga drums set the beat Thursday through Sunday nights at Amor Cubano, a spirited café in East Harlem (aka Spanish Harlem and El Barrio). For quiet dinners, book a table on the band's nights off (Monday–Wednesday). This elegant, candlelit corner spot has flourished since 2007, thanks to robust, well-seasoned food, ambrosial mojitos in tropical flavors, and warm, smiling service. Start with complimentary crisp plantain chips with creamy, cilantro-garlic dip. After munching on those, move on to must-have chickpeas sautéed with smoked ham, bacon and onions, and a giant plate of vaca frita (shredded, pan-fried skirt steak and onions) with a mound of rice and bowl of soupy, cumin-rich black beans. It will be hard to make room for the guava bread pudding after all that, but do try. Smarter yet, split a main course. Like several other Cuban places in the City, brunch features bottomless sangrias and mimosas (but only as much as you can drink in 90 minutes).

Photo: Will Steacy

Cafe Habana
17 Prince St., 212-625-2001, NoLIta, Manhattan
From day one in 1998, Cafe Habana has been a NoLIta hot spot. Its snug booths and Formica tables are packed with young artists, models, actors and groups of girls toasting good times with daiquiris and mojitos. The crowds keep coming for big, affordable portions of Cuban and Mexican food, which never go out of style. The luncheonette's name is a tribute to Cafe La Habana in Mexico City, where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara allegedly met over coffee to plot the Cuban revolution. Open daily from 9am to midnight, the restaurant is a well-oiled machine, turning out eggs and café con leche, fat Cuban sandwiches and roast pork marinated in herbs and citrus. To handle the overflow (reservations are not accepted), Habana To Go—a storefront offering a full menu—is next door. The Cafe Habana concept is such a gold mine that owner Sean Meenan has also opened outposts in Malibu, California, and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Photo: Lou Manna

222 Thompson St., 212-420-7878, West Village, Manhattan
This cozy hideaway in the West Village has pulsed with the sound of Cuban music and the rattle of mojitos being shaken since opening its doors in 2004. Cuba has party rooms in back and downstairs, so it's more sizeable than it may first appear. Paintings of old Havana, depicting guayabera-shirted musicians and nostalgic street scenes, hang on exposed brick walls. Live musicians appear on weekends, as does a gentleman hand-rolling cigars. The crowd is a mix of college students and older West Villagers, sharing empanadas stuffed with beef picadillo, plates of crispy calamari and sweet plantains with tamarind vinaigrette, and a classic vaca frita, pan-fried skirt steak and onions with garlicky mojo sauce. Come at happy hour for $5 mojitos and sangria—or for a boozy brunch, when you can add $14 to the price of an entrée and get 90 minutes of unlimited cocktails.

Courtesy, Pilar Cuban Eatery

Pilar Cuban Eatery
397 Greene Ave., 718-623-2822, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
The paint is barely dry at the new location of Pilar Cuban Eatery, which is two blocks away from the miniscule original. About five times bigger, the corner space has a lofty ceiling, full-length picture windows, a pretty tiled floor and a ramped-up menu of Cuban comfort food. The growing pains came about because the savory empanadas, super-fresh avocado and tomato salad, pressed Cuban sandwiches and daily specials (ropa vieja, Cuban pot roast stuffed with house-smoked chorizo) drew overflow crowds in the ever-cooler Bed-Stuy neighborhood. There is beer and wine to drink, but so far no full liquor license for mojitos. Until the kitchen gets on its feet, they'll serve only dinner from 5pm to 11pm. Brunch and lunch will be offered down the road.

Courtesy, Victor's Cafe

Victor's Cafe
236 W. 52nd St., 212-586-7714, Midtown, Manhattan
Victor's Cafe is the debonair granddaddy of all Cuban restaurants in New York City. This Theatre District supper club, run by the grandchildren of founder Victor del Corral, originally opened back in 1963 on the Upper West Side and relocated to Midtown in 1980. Despite its age, there is nothing tired about the place. The sumptuous, tropical decor is beguiling, and the Cuban comfort food exhibits a light touch: highlights include filet of snapper in green plantain crust and diver scallops brightened with papaya, lime juice and chives. The air is redolent of garlic from all the ropa vieja (slow-braised skirt steak in garlic sauce) sailing by. In the dining room, small lamps reflect off white linen-covered tables. Up front in the lively Cuba Lounge, customers and staff can't help cha-cha-ing to the Son de Cuba Band, which plays Tuesday through Saturday nights.