Cuban culture is one of the most recognizable in the world. While Miami may be better known for its Cuban ties, the greater New York City area has nearly 150,000 Cuban Americans and plenty of historical resonance for those residents. Many Cubans migrated to the City as a result of the Cuban sugar trade, during the Ten Years’ War and Spanish-Cuban-American War, and decades later in response to Fidel Castro’s rise and rule.
In doing so, they brought along their cuisine, music, art and dance, which now exist here in abundance. Read on for where to experience Cuban food and culture—mouthwatering Cuban sandwiches and ropa vieja; tropical cocktails on rooftops; and salsa, rumba and cha-cha on the dance floor—around NYC.
Tuck into ropa vieja at Coppelia
Ropa vieja is one of the national dishes of Cuba. It’s typically made with shredded flank steak—reflective of the dish’s name, which translates to “old clothes”—doused in tomato sauce and smothered with bell peppers. There is one spot in particular in New York City to get it: Coppelia. This Cuban outpost in Chelsea is named after a famous Havana ice cream parlor that draws lines around the block. Beatriz de Armas opened the namesake stateside Latin American diner in honor of the institution. With its 24/7 glowing neon light, Coppelia introduces New Yorkers to Cuba’s delicious cuisine. There are other classics like Cubano and medianoche sandwiches and arroz con pollo (yellow rice and chicken).
Try crispy lechon asado at Rincon Criollo
Open since 1976, family-run Cuban spot Rincon Criollo (40-09 Junction Blvd.), in Jackson Heights, serves classics like ropa vieja and picadillo. Most notable is the Acosta family’s lechon asado, suckling pig marinated in salsa mojo, a citrusy, garlicky marinade, and then roasted.
The original Rincon Criollo (named after a Cuban movie) dates back to the early 1950s in Havana’s Santiago de Las Vegas, before members of the Acosta family came to the United States. The stateside location is as popular as its progenitor: Celia Cruz and Jon Secada are just two of the many stars who have visited and now have their pictures on the wall.
Pair a Cuban sandwich with coffee at My Cuban Spot
Head over to Gowanus to get a Cuban sandwich (“sand-weech” as per the menu) and an intense cup of Cuban coffee from the window-service restaurant My Cuban Spot (488 Carroll St.). The sandwiches come with playful names like “This Little Piggy Needs Bread” (slow-cooked pork butt, mojo and potato sticks on Cuban bread). Accompany one with a cafecito, cortadito or cafe con leche.
Get a spoonful of mofongo at Havana Café
Yes, we know that mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish. But it has become a staple of Cuban restaurant menus, where the mashed and fried delight goes by the name of fufu de plátano. Havana Café in the Bronx (3151 E. Tremont Ave.) is known for their garlicky green plantain mofongo, crowned with shrimp and pork chicharrón, in a pool of sauce. Pair your mofongo with other classic Cuban dishes or check out chef Alex Garcia’s nuevo Cubano takes like pizza Cubana and the brick-oven Cuban sandwich.
Hang out on the rooftop patio with a drink at Zona de Cuba
Grab a drink at the Bronx’s Zona de Cuba (558 Grand Concourse), its colorful, plant-filled rooftop outdoor patio offering views of the city skyline. Lounge on plush rainbow seats while sipping a mojito criollo or glass of sangria, or enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner underneath the twinkling stringed lights and shaded umbrellas. The space is just as airy and lush inside too, bedecked with sparkling chandeliers and filled with plants set against a black-and-white-tiled floor. There’s live music and dancing too.
Visit the José Julián Martí statue
José Julián Martí was a Cuban poet, philosopher and professor known for his role in the liberation of Cuba from Spain. A bronze equestrian statue, created by sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, stands on a granite pedestal in Central Park South where it meets the Avenue of the Americas. It was cast in 1959 and donated by the Cuban government but not displayed until 1965. Martí’s story has a New York twist: he was captured by the Spanish in 1868 and fled to New York in 1880, advocating for Cuban freedom all the while.
Enjoy city views and Cuban art at Hotel Hugo’s Azul Rooftop
Take the elevator 20 floors up at Hotel Hugo to enjoy sweeping views of Lower Manhattan and the Hudson River from Azul Rooftop (525 Greenwich St.), a Cuban-inspired rooftop bar. This modern Soho cantina serves up Cuban cocktails, frosés and slushies in a space covered in vintage ads, posters for live acts from the 1950s, street art and spray-painted graphics.
Hear live music at Amor Cubano
Amor Cubano (2018 Third Ave.), in East Harlem, is one of the City’s most energetic spots for live Cuban music. The setting recalls 1950s Havana, with Cuban food, live music from artists like Gian Carla and a restaurant floor that opens up for salsa and dancing. Look out for the graffiti wall art of legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz on the side of the restaurant.
Salsa, rumba and cha-cha at Guantanamera
Cuban restaurant Guantanamera (939 Eighth Ave., New York, NY, or 110-80 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills, NY) is known for its incredible live music on the weekends that almost always leads to a festive crowd dancing in the restaurant. There’s sangria, an incredible selection of mojitos and complimentary hand-rolled cigars. The restaurant shares its name with a well-known Cuban song, whose lyrics are from a poem by national Cuban hero José Julian Martí.
Learn Cuban salsa at Fuákata
Fuákata was founded by Christopher Rogicki in 2007 to promote Cuban-style salsa and timba music in New York City. This Cuban dance group offers salsa classes to all levels of students at Adelante Studios (25 W. 31st St.), in Manhattan’s Koreatown. Learn Cuban salsa on a spacious dance floor, and enjoy refreshments, which are served at each lesson. Nab your reservation and stay tuned for the latest through the group’s Facebook page.
Explore Afro-Cuban modern dancing at Alvin Ailey
Renowned dance studio Alvin Ailey offers Afro-Cuban modern dancing online. Led by instructor Noibis Licea, the class teaches students how to think more intently about space, time and musicality. Alvin Ailey is also offering a workshop that explores the various forms of Afro-Cuban dance tradition with movements representing the Orishas (deities from the African traditions brought to Cuba).