The same armed revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959 drove other Cubans to flee to America, where they opened many excellent restaurants that have been teaching us ever since about the garlicky charms of their homeland’s cooking.
One of these, however, was not Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine, which started in 1997 near the World Trade Center in downtown New York. That restaurant was launched by members of the Luna family, who were from Peru but decided that Cuban food would be a better draw in trendy Manhattan.
Their bet paid off, and today there are seven Sophie’s restaurants in Lower and Midtown Manhattan, including one near the UN campus on Lexington Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, just a few blocks from the Cuban mission to the UN. While the food at Sophie’s is not the city’s purest expression of Cuban tradition, it has over the years become extremely popular with people seeking a quick, hearty and inexpensive taste of the island’s fare in casual surroundings.
There’s a hint of Peru on the menu as well, and the clientele, while heavily Hispanic, is as diverse as New York City itself. “Sophie’s is popular with all ethnic and socioeconomic groups,” the restaurant’s Web site boasts.
Time for a Face-Lift?
Alas, well into its second decade, there are signs that Sophie’s is not aging well. Its restaurants at 141 Fulton Street and 21 W. 45th Street are actually franchises and no longer run by the Lunas, a step that typically leads to compromises in quality.
The Lexington Avenue branch, still managed by a member of the original family, a daughter named Mila Luna, seems to be taking some money-saving shortcuts, despite her studies at the Cordon Bleu restaurant school in Paris and her online pledge that “the quality of the food never changes.”
The place ladles out generally good food at reasonable prices to huge numbers of people. While most customers take their lunch back to their desks, each restaurant has seating, although the Lexington Avenue dining area is drab and poorly protected from winter winds.
But you can get a killer portion of succulent roast pork (“pernil” in Spanish), real roast turkey (not that Boar’s Head plastic substitute) in sauce, or spicy grilled chicken, among others; your choice is heaped into a round heavy-duty foil container — whether you have it on the spot or to go — along with generous servings of your pick of two side dishes. The tender red beans and sweet fried plantain are my favorites; the “salad” is shredded iceberg with a sliver each of tomato and cucumber.
Every day, Sophie’s offers the same 11 main dishes and three to five rotating daily specials with two sides for $9, except for the oxtail stew, which is $10. Each dish is arrayed in a large stainless-steel tray, laid out behind a glass-fronted steam table that runs practically the entire length of the restaurant, so you can walk along it and check out the dishes before ordering.
Two Sandwich Winners
You can also get a sandwich, made to order for $6.95; the best picks are the roast pork or the giant slab of boneless chicken, pounded flat, breaded, fried and topped with mayo and onions. Or, if you’re unafraid of heartburn and cholesterol, you could try the quite competent classic “Cuban sandwich,” heaping roast pork, ham, gooey cheese, mayo, mustard and pickles on a long roll for the same $6.95.
But if you order the “fried pork chunks” — the menu’s translation of the celebrated Latin dish masitas de puerco — you get a plate of chewy dried-out cubes of pork that have been deep-fried until dead rather than the succulent traditional recipe, which calls for long, slow simmering and then sautéeing of the meat so it comes out moist and melting in your mouth.
Similarly, the special “seafood in Cuban sauce” (mariscada) features dried-out squid rings, a few tasteless shrimp, dry fish chunks and two huge but extremely tough mussels in a ho-hum sauce. The seafood is either of mediocre quality to begin with or sadly overcooked, or perhaps both.
And the oxtail stew, while dressed with an extremely flavorful sauce, is simply not cooked long enough for the meat to fall off the bone, as it should. Oxtail is, of course, bony by nature. But this version requires customers to pick up each bone and try to gnaw out the tiny morsels of meat simply because the kitchen didn’t have the patience to simmer it longer.
“I keep a close watch over our food to be sure that it is always perfect!” the Web site for the Lexington Avenue restaurant quotes Ms. Luna, the manager, as saying. Let’s hope her vigilance prevents Sophie’s from degenerating into just another fast-food chain.
Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine nearest the UN is located at 369 Lexington Avenue, between 40th and 41st Streets. It is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (212) 922-3576.