80s NYC Cheap Eats Pt.1

Naturally, moving to NYC expanded my palate. And I always loved to eat. I was exposed to Cuban food in Ohio, through my father and his sugar business connections. My mother even made a convincing version of picadillo for visitors from Miami. In 1980s era Chelsea, a working class Hispanic neighborhood just north of the West Village, Cuban-Chinese restaurants dotted the landscape. Comidas Chinas Y Criollas. The Chinese side of the menu ran to the Americanized basics, platters with egg roll and fried rice. I rarely saw anybody order the Chinese food at any of these places.

Latin dishes were the draw, the common specialties of Cuba and Puerto Rico: picadillo (spicy ground beef), ropa vieja (shredded beef in vinegary sauce), pot roast stuffed with chorizo sausage, garlicky chicken, fried pork chops and pernil, leathery roast pork cut in thick fat-laden slices. The perfect accompaniment, and the only one offered, was rice and beans: your choice of yellow or white, black or red, respectively.

My favorite Cuban-Chinese was Mi Chinita. Situated in an old-fashioned dining car on the corner of 19th and 8th Avenue, Mi Chinita was the domain of a grumpy, graying Chinese man named Sam.  The specialty of the house was fried chickpeas and chorizo piled next to a mountain of yellow rice and sweet plantains (fried bananas). You stayed full.

A couple years later I took my dad to Mi Chinita during a business trip. He liked the picadillo and he laughed when I told him we’d received unusually attentive service from Sam because we’d ordered Heinekens, the most expensive beverage on the menu.

Another tip I’d gleaned from my dad concerned the existence of cafeterias serving homely square-meal fare at reasonable prices. Sound advice, though out of date: by 1981 there was really only one left. Even the Bellmore Cafeteria, where Travis Bickle spent his breaks in Taxi Driver, had closed by then. Dubrow’s Cafeteria was it. But what a grand place, an art deco relic in the garment district between Times Square and Herald Square. The garment district was another of New York City’s worlds-within, where daredevil delivery guys commanded the sidewalks with their careening handcarts and coat-racks.

The sumptuously designed and ornamented surroundings at Dubrow’s, only slightly worse for the wear, belied the stolid nature of the cuisine on offer: punishing helpings of Jewish soul food. Paperback-sized slices of eggy challah bread with butter, mashed potatoes supporting a lean-to plank of mushroom-studded meat loaf, cabbage or peppers stuffed with meat and rice, dry overcooked chicken, nuked brisket or the melting beef short ribs that many Dubrow’s customers probably ate without their dentures.  I loved the kasha varnishkes, nutty buckwheat grains tossed with buttered noodles and sweet browned onions, but it was the kind of side dish that put a damper on the rest of your dinner.  Dubrow’s was soul nourishing, on an abstract level, and acutely stomach-damaging. Eventually I really did get sick after eating there, winding up in St. Vincent’s emergency room with my first case of food poisoning. Understandably, I never went back after that.