From Havana to Queens, a 50-year culinary journey

March 27th, 2015  |  Published in Access, Melting Pot

A taste of home

Rincon Criollo's signature dish

Rincon Criollo’s signature dish, ropa vieja. Photo: Alistair Gardiner.


The walls of Jackson Heights’ Rincon Criollo restaurant tell the saga of Cuban immigration. Esther Acosta, one of three siblings who run the 40-year old restaurant, brings over a Cerveza Hatuey, a dark, bitter ale that she says is typical Cuban style, and points to the photographs, saying, “This is my godfather, this is my great aunt, this is my uncle who made all the chairs for the restaurant, here’s the original site in Havana…” Some of the pictures are more than 50 years old.

Due to bad weather and the fact it’s a Monday, Rincon Criollo is fairly quiet tonight. There’s an Asian family, a group of young Latinos, a black couple, and one man, in a suit, who sits on his own and is friendly with all the staff, a typically diverse mix of customers.

The man in the suit is a lawyer whose practice is in the city, but whose home is on Long Island. He comes to the restaurant nearly every other weekday, and by now the staff know him so well that, most of the time, he doesn’t even need to relay an order. Tonight, they’ve brought him a Corona, a sopa del dia (which, on Monday, is corn tamale soup), a bistec Rincon Criollo (steak and onions), and coffee.

The group of young Latinos are here for the first time to celebrate a birthday, which is a spectacle at Rincon Criollo. They have ordered numerous dishes, including multiple orders of the restaurant’s signature, ropa vieja, which translates as ‘old clothes’ and is named for its appearance.

It comes in three parts: meat, rice, and beans, which the customer mixes on one big plate. The flank steak is cooked in a pressure cooker and then shredded, before being mixed together with green peppers, onion, garlic, tomato paste, whole peeled tomatoes, white pepper, cumin, ground bay leaf, ground oregano, and ketchup.

“It’s the same recipe my grandfather used.” says Rudesindo ‘Rudy’ Acosta, who’s 38 and runs the restaurant with his sister Esther, 35, and brother Ruben, 30. “My grandpa and his brothers, they came from an era where you just made ends meet, you know, wherever you could catch a break, and this guy comes in on a bike, with cases and cases of Ketchup. And he says I’ll give you all of this for some ridiculous price, I think it was like ten dollars. I mean, we had ketchup for a year.”

“So he starts putting it in the ropa vieja,” says Acosta, “because he just said ‘Well. It’s tomato sauce with a bit of a sweet touch,’ and people loved it. So it stuck.”

Acosta previously worked in hotel management in Miami, as did his siblings, and originally he intended to buy a Cuban restaurant. He came to New York in 2009 to learn about the business from his great-uncles, who were running Rincon Criollo at the time, and who were reaching retirement age.

“They said ‘Who says we’re going anywhere?’” says Acosta, “and I said ‘I don’t know if you guys noticed, but you’re eighty!’”

He spent six months learning how the kitchen was run, and then said he might want to stay and run the place. “’You couldn’t handle this. This is New York!,’” he remembers them telling him. “’Go back to Miami where you know the people and know what you’re dealing with.’”

He replied, “All right, that’s it. I’m staying.”

In 2011, he and his siblings took over, continuing a family business that has crossed continents and can be traced back over 50 years. In early 2012 the restaurant was featured on Guy Fieri’s television show, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

“My grandfather started the original restaurant in Havana in 1950,” says Acosta. His grandfather was an orphan with six brothers and, although he was the third eldest, he was considered the head of the family. During their youth, they sold fruit in their neighborhood and over the years saved enough money to buy a small restaurant, which they called Rincon Criollo, after a 1950 Cuban movie of the same name.

The restaurant grew and became “kind of a hot spot,” says Acosta. At its peak, it was popular with locals and high-profile customers alike. Acosta points to pictures taken during this era, saying, “I mean, the suits, the ties — they look like Italian mobsters, you know?”

Then, in 1962, Castro’s forces walked into the restaurant.

“They came in saying ‘Listen here, we’re going to buy your restaurant’,” says Acosta, “My grandfather said ‘What are you talking about? It’s not for sale.’” He was informed that the restaurant belonged to the government. “In essence, everything was taken away.”

In 1967, the two youngest of his great-uncles left Cuba and came the U.S., and opened the current Rincon Criollo in 1974. “They took the same recipes and the same ideals of it being a family business,” says Acosta. His grandfather didn’t emigrate until 1980, and died in Miami in 2004.

Though Rudy Acosta was born in Miami, where his parents still live, it’s clear that he feels strongly about his Cuban roots, particularly with Cuba-U.S. normalization in the headlines.

“If it’s something to help out the people, then I get it,” he says, “but we’re not talking about that. What they’re talking about is simply saying ‘OK, we’re gonna have a free exchange between the U.S. and Cuba’ and that’s just going to benefit the same people that are somewhat benefiting from what goes on in Cuba right now: Castro and his people.”

Acosta says that he employs a number of young men who grew up in Cuba, and the world they describe is one of oppression and poverty. “If you ask any Cuban, you’ll pretty much get the same answer,” he says. “Well, any Cuban that’s not in Cuba with a gun to their head. Any Cuban who can speak freely.”

Acosta isn’t opposed to what President Obama is attempting to do; he just feels that it avoids the real issues. He says, “What those people need is civil rights, freedom of speech, to be able to do what you and I do, which is: we work and we get paid.”

When Rincon Criollo opened in 1974, most of its clientele came from local Cuban immigrant communities in Washington Heights, Astoria, Elmherst and Jackson Heights. These days, there is no strong concentration of Cubans living in any one neighborhood, but the original customers remain loyal.

“They still come!” says Acosta, “They just come from Long Island, they come from the city, they come from Connecticut – and they bring their families. At this point we’re talking about grand-kids of the grandfather whose picture is still up on the wall here. And it’s beautiful! It’s beautiful.”

This year, the family wants to open a second Rincon Criollo on Long Island. “We’re hoping to get that second location in April or May,” says Acosta. They picked the location for one specific reason: “It’s a very family-oriented town. And this is a family business. Our sign says it all: ‘Ambiente Familiar,’ which means family atmosphere. It means this is where you bring grandma, this is where you bring grandpa, this is where you bring your crying baby. This is part of who we are.”

“In New York everyone wants to do it fast and just get it done,” he says, “We have a different system.”

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