What happens when a Chinese family migrates to New York by way of Cuba? The immigrants open what will become a legendary restaurant cooking up delicious Cuban-Chinese food. The eatery I’m referring to is La Caridad 78. It’s been a fixture at 78th and Broadway since 1968 and continues to create classic Latin dishes like ropa vieja and arroz con pollo, as well as typical Chinese meals like sesame chicken and shrimp with lobster sauce, and I might add, all in the same Upper West Side kitchen.
Fancy an egg roll? Got it. Wonton soup? Check. But you’ll also find plantano frito (fried plantain) and frijoles negros (black beans) just a few lines down on the menu. And all dishes, whether Latin or Chinese, are listed in Spanish (with an English translation).
Why did a Chinese family move to NYC from Cuba, and how did they get to Cuba in the first place? Many indentured Chinese workers immigrated to Cuba in the late 19th and 20th centuries and decided to flee the country between 1959 and the 1980s after Castro came into power. Some of those immigrants settled in New York City, and some opened restaurants. The Lee family was one that migrated to NYC and founded La Caridad 78, a local joint catering to local people. While Sam Lee runs the show now, it was his father, Raphael, who started the business almost 50 years ago.
According to 63-year-old Lee, he wanted to continue his father’s legacy and business, and now in a city of extinction, La Caridad 78 is one of the only of its kind that remains. Today, there are few if any spots serving Chinese-Cuban food in the city. Most restaurants offer Spanish or Chinese food, rather than the fusion cuisine that Lee’s father helped introduce to New York. But, he explained that the restaurant becomes more Chinese as the years go on since customers ask for the traditional Chinese dishes more and more.
Most of the staff at La Caridad 78 are Chinese immigrants, but Cuban-born Antonio Wong has worked at the West Side kitchen since 1986 and still waits tables. In the video below from Great Big Story, you can hear from Sam Lee and Antonio Wong, and take a look at this timeless spot that remains a favorite for Upper West Siders.
La Caridad 78 is much more than a neighborhood restaurant. Rather, this enduring establishment epitomizes the fusion of two distinctly different cultures. One immigrant’s endeavor continues to connect countless people from New York City and beyond, and all through food. That’s a great New York story.
New York NY 10024