I’ve spent a lot of time in Chelsea over the years. As a cab driver, I go through that neighborhood at least 15 times per shift. As an admirer of New York’s gay community, I’ll meet up with friends in Chelsea for drinks or the occasional transvesite stripper Broadway review extravaganza. And as an eater, I used to go to Chelsea at least once a month for a restaurant on 18th Street and 8th Avenue called La Chinita Linda.
La Chinita Linda, which translates to ”The Pretty Little Chinese Girl,” was a stubborn hold-out from that bygone era sometime in the 80s and 90s when “Chino-Latino” cuisine was all the rage. Menus all over town were devoted half to Chinese food and half to Cuban food.
One of the most popular restaurants of that ilk was called Bayamo. Located on Broadway and Washington Place, the cavernous space was decorated with a giant, embarassingly phallic red chili pepper suspended from the ceiling. Although Bayamo and most of the others closed a few years back, La Chinita Linda remained.
(I loved it enough to put my camera on top of a parked car, set the timer, and leap into the frame to express the joy it brought me)
I thought La Chinita Linda was different, impervious to change. Their Chinese food was above par. Their egg rolls, heavy on the shrimp, light on the cabbage, and fried until they were a dark, crispy brown, were some of the best I’ve ever had. And the beers were under $2 per bottle.
The Cuban food was nothing less than phenomenal. La Chinita Linda was run by Chinese people with Chinese waitresses and Chinese cooks, but the Cuban food was better than any I’ve ever tasted (those who know me me know that I’ve gone to great lengths to eat authentic Cuban food). I’ve heard the Chinese owner speak in Spanish with a Cuban accent to some of the many gay Cuban patrons who, in my wild imagination, all came over on the Mariel boat lift in 1980, and I swear the owner was more fluent than the Cubans.
My favorite dish was called ropa vieja or “old clothes.” According to some Cubans I’ve spoken with, the dish is named ropa vieja because the shredded beef bares a striking resemblance to tattered old rags. For the money, nothing in Chelsea could beat that plate overflowing with tender, juicy shredded beef beside a steaming mound of fluffy yellow rice topped with five or six plump, gooey maduros (sweet plantains). I used to save some of the yellow rice to eat on its own, mix the rest in with the meat, douse one corner in hot sauce, save another corner to enjoy with just the natural flavoring, consume the rest with a conservative smothering of hot sauce, down some maduros straight, mingle the other maduros with the rice and meat. Every bite was a unique taste sensation. Even Famous Fat Dave couldn’t ever finish a whole plate. And then there was something so satisfying, so uniquely New York, about capping off an amazing traditional Cuban feast with a fortune cookie.
This February I went to look at an apartment in Chelsea. I was checking out the dismal parking situation and considering the subway options when I noticed I was on the corner of 18th and 8th. I raised my finger in the direction of my favorite Chelsea haunt and said, “Well, at least we’d be near . . .” when I saw the For Lease signs all over the gated windows. I actually dropped to my knees and screamed in agony. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my heart was bursting with actual physical pain. I was in a terrible mood for weeks. I don’t deal well with change.
Yesterday I drove by late at night and noticed a new establishment had finally opened in La Chinita Linda’s place. I knew it wasn’t going to be a tasty, inexpensive eatery that might find its way into my heart against all the odds, but I wish it didn’t turn out the way it did. It is exactly what Chelsea doesn’t need: another tragically hip, overpriced bar/ unauthentic Thai restaurant that is clearly too concerned with its appearance. I don’t know who gets to sit in this chair, but I don’t think they had me in mind when they hung it in the window:
As I gazed upon what had become of my pretty little Chinese girl, I heard a crash at the corner of 18th Street. One yellow cabbie had spotted a potential fare on the slow night and stopped short while turning onto 8th Ave. Another cabbie rear ended him firmly. The first cabbie got out of his car and began hurling all sorts of outlandish insults in broken English, so the second cabbie gave the first cab yet another love nudge to prove his point.
As the argument reached a fever pitch, an unnecessarily muscular man in snakeskin cowboy boots and a mesh tank top walked by. In a stern, but jovial tone, he bellowed, “GIRLS, GIRLS, YOU’RE BOTH BEAUTIFUL.” It was nice to see that some things in Chelsea haven’t changed.
Visit www.famousfatdave.com for an eating tour on which maduros can be featured prominently