07.11.06

Chelsea Girls

Posted in Caribbean, Chelsea, Chic, Chinese, Latino, Manhattan at 8:27 am by Administrator

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.

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(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.

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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:

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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  

12 Comments »

  1. acmr said,

    July 11, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    Just from your writing, I can feel your pain….sorry for your loss…Chinese-Cuban sounds yummy…

  2. Eileen said,

    July 11, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Whaddya think of La Caridad on Bway/78th?

  3. Natalie said,

    July 12, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    If only there were more like you in the world, then maybe such restaurants wouldn’t shut down.

  4. kat said,

    July 12, 2006 at 3:50 pm

    Dave, I love your blog and I read it every day. I was very excited to see your Chinita Linda post. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel for a few years and ate at Chinita with some regularity. Their ropa vieja was my favorite dish. I am saddened and surprised to see that they are yet another casualty of gentrification. That said, I felt the need to correct you on a few points. Chinita is not a hold out from some 90’s fad, they have been around for over 20 years. Secondly, The reason the Chinese there speak spanish and cook good cuban, is that they are Cuban Chinese, as in Chinese people from Cuba. As opposed to just Chinese. There are such Cuban Chinese diner style restaurants, but fewer and fewer these days, and not many hold a candle to chinita. I always thought that if I got in your cab I would tell you about Chinita. Oh well. Since Chinita has closed, and I will probably never hail your cab, I will tell you about Andalucia, a divey little bar run by one Argentine man who goes into the kitchen himself and cooks anything you might order from the lovely Tapas menu. Try the pork medallions, soak up the garlicky sauce with the bread! Let’s hope they haven’t gone belly-up yet!

  5. kat said,

    July 12, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to tell you, Andalucia is 50th( I think) and either 9th or 10th ave. Also, try the shrimp in verde sauce! That is if you are willing to take an online recommendation from a would be fare.

  6. robin said,

    July 12, 2006 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks kat for explaining the history of the Chinese-Cuban restaurants in New York. One last thing. The reason the Chinese-Cuban cooks came here was because they were forced to leave Cuba when Castro took over. They were either cooking for wealthy families in Cuba, or owned their own restaurants, and so there wasn’t much of a place for them in communist Cuba. The place that I used to enjoy when I lived in New York from 1976-1985 (old-old school!), was up in Inwood on the corner of Dyckman Street near the #1 train stop. I wish I could remember its name. But they had a dish that I adored which was deep fried pork chunks, served with either black or red beans and rice, and fried plantains or fried bananas. The pork was crispy and salty and spicey on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. My husband and I got obsessed with making it ourselves and bought a fry daddy and etc., but we could never make it as well as they did at the restaurant — of course. They also had the BEST egg rolls, just like Chinita Linda. When I was pregnant with my first son, I craved them. Those restaurants were always great places to eat because they were cheap and good and had a cool easy vibe. Plus, you could finish dinner with a REAL cafe con leche. I’m sorry to hear they are disappearing. I think I would have fallen to my knees and screamed too.

  7. kaci said,

    August 6, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    The very first cuban chinese restaurant in Chelsea was Asia de Cuba, which is now Habana Chelsea w/o chinese food, but has some really good Breaded steak. It opened in the 60’s. Soon after several other cuban chinese places opened with in a block. One on 20th st which lasted for some yrs, one on the corner of 19th in an old diner which should have been landmarked and is now the sight of the trendy greek place.
    This was the original Mi chinita which was run by Cuban chinese. Due to heath problems they sold original diner Mi Chinita and opened a place in the 50’s on 9th ave. The diner on the corner continued to operate with first rate cheap food. I used to call it my kitchen.
    I think in the late 80’s the owner of the diner property, Sam was asked to sell the diner to developers… he refused but part of the Mi chinita group rented a store down the block just in case. That became La Chinita Linda.
    Then Mi chinita became Sam Chinita in honor of the owner who refused to sell the property so the restaurant could continue as long as he lived.
    The owner of Chinita Linda was chinese, but as MUCH of the food in NYC are prepared by all kinds of Spanish people. Some of the food in the original diner…Mi chinita was better than La chinita linda ( I think it was the equipment that made that difference), but the diner was full or roaches and many were turned off by that. Each had its fans and Chelsea happily support both Chinitas for many yrs.
    My kids grew up on this food, but what I miss and cannot find in the remaining Cuban Chinese restaurants is their egg foo young,,,which had a reddish sauce instead of the brown sauce… I hunger for it in my soul. I wish I knew how to make that sauce.
    Hungry cabbie…I welcome you as a real new yawker…because you really know how to love NYC. We need more like you hoo can ‘go native’ regardless of where you were born.

  8. AHCB said,

    March 5, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Sam Chinita’s was awesome as well. We really miss Sams.

  9. Mayte said,

    March 21, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks to everybody so much for the info about the restaurants! I am from Havana but live in NYC. I found this page trying to find a Cuban-Chinese restaurant. Of course, I cook chinese the way we do it in Cuba :) and miss the “Chinese” restaurants I used to go as a child. Now I know where to take my sons to eat instead of trying to explain to them what Cuban-Chinese cuisine is :)

  10. Fufu said,

    June 5, 2007 at 6:51 am

    I hope they moved to the Bay Area. We need a good Chino-Cubano resturant, seriously. Oakland or Berkeley, CA, please, mi gente………

  11. AnitaBou said,

    June 29, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    I’m from Havana myself and find it fascinating that there is a Cuban-Chinese community in NY! Sad to see it’s disappearing… Have never tried their cuisine, but next time I’m in those areas, I’ll look for it! ^.^
    I wonder if the Chinese that are still in Havana cook just as those here…
    I do remember having very tasty stuff in Chinatown, in Havana.

    Are you willing to travel that far for it? :)

  12. LED said,

    July 25, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    I was googling to find a restaurant for a dinner rendezvous and I remembered La Chinita Linda. Got here to your blog page. I’m bereft. She’s gone!? Long ago in late 80s and early 90s my Chelsea roomies and I would eat there at least once a week. I loved the crackling chicken, cheap beer and those plantains—mmmmmmmmm. Every time I walked by in recent years, I said, “I should just go in and pork out.” I only did it once–on a date with my now hubby. How i wish I had done that more! That was one place with some grand memories of a time in my life that I often miss. Sigh. Thanks for your musings. :>)
    p.s. I also liked Caridad when I lived on the Upper West Side, but La Chinita was great because of its staff & owner.
    p.p.s. This has inspired me to go buy and cook some rice, beans & plantains tonight.

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