If you'd been on the jet set beaches just outside Havana in 1955, from what I hear you would probably have stopped by a trendy little beachside restaurant named Rincon Criollo. It was run by three young brothers. I've seen their photos. They look barely out of their teens. He has a haunted, outsider look in his eyes. He must be pleasant to these rich vacationers, but he is not one of them. Or maybe that look is of someone observing everything that goes on in the restaurant. If a waiter gets an order wrong on the other side of the restaurant, the owner will know before the customer does.
Then the Communists arrived and threw the brothers out. Now, 50 years later, two very old brothers run a restaurant in Corona, Queens, the heart of the Latin section, called Rincon Criollo. If you look hard at the photos, you will recognize them. Visiting Cubans have said that the restaurant looks like a shrine to pre-Castro Cuba. And it does, with all those mementoes on the walls. The food is a shrine to Cuban cuisine.
I've been going there for years, and I've been there three times over the past few months. Here are my journal entries for each time.
There is a different rice and beans every day of the week. Today, it was green beans -- not the green beans I was expecting, but green kidney beans -- stewed with rich smoky ham and sausage in a garlicky broth reminiscent of a Caldo Gallego. I ordered oxtail -- fatty, impossibly rich meat cooked for hours in wine and bay leaves -- the best slow-cooked meat ever. I finished, said goodbye to Cuba, and stepped out into the sultry Queens night.
A nice walk along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, thronged with people, an alien world where most people feel closer to Bogota or Buenos Aires than they do to Manhattan. Then back to Rincon Criollo. They have a Tuesday special of ropa vieja I wanted to try. It means old clothes, but it is not. It is shredded beef, looks like chopped barbecue, cooked for hours in a tomato sauce. Alongside was the bean of the day, white beans in a thick stew with potatoes and ham. On the way back I got off the train in the Indian neighborhood and had a malai ice cream perfumed with rosewater as I watched people in Indian costume buy vegetables at the sidewalk stalls
I went back to Rincon Criollo, that Cuban restaurant in Queens, where I had Picadillo, chopped beef stewed with diced olives, capers and peppers. The bean of the day was garbanzo, cooked with sausage in a thin but flavorful broth
Rincon Criollo 40-09 Junction Boulevard (twenty feet from Roosevelt Av, and Junction Blvd station of #7 train) (718) 639-8158