A review by John Mariani for Forbes.
Before Victor’s Café opened in 1963, Cuban cooks worked in restaurants that sold themselves as Spanish while lending a good deal more spice and seasoning to the food. Victor del Corral and his wife, Eloina Ruiz de Ugarrio, emigrated from Havana and opened his namesake restaurant on the Upper West Side, then moved to the Theater District as of 1980. The move brought waves of theatergoers and celebrities to Victor’s over the past five decades, and now, after a closure due to Covid, the place has a brand new sheen and décor that makes it one of the most convivial and colorful spots in New York.
There are three dining rooms of various sizes, each individually decorated with Cuban and modern art, excellent lighting, and, somehow, a moderate decibel level despite a highly convivial crowd. You may also dine outside on the enclosed patio. There is also a snug Cuba Lounge up front, with live music and a portrait of boxer Roberto Durán, who in 1980 reportedly ate a gargantuan meal at Victor’s before going into the ring against Sugar Ray Leonard and giving up in Round Eight, saying, “No mas!”
Victor’s daughter, Sonia Zaldivar, and granddaughter, Monica Zaldivar, now run the restaurant, along with the ebullient general manager Francine Powell. The waitstaff could not be more cordial and are very helpful in choosing your dishes and wines. There are also some terrific cocktails that include a first-rate daiquiri and a range of mojitos.
As Guillermo Pernod and Lourdes Castro have written in Cuba Cooks (2018), Cuban cuisine is an amalgam of influences that include native food, Spanish, African, French and Chinese—this last owing to the 19th century immigration of 100,000 Chinese to work the island’s sugar farms and docks. This so-called comidas criollas evolved over centuries, with both indigenous and imported foods providing variety, all represented on Victor’s well-structured menu.
There are more than a dozen appetizers at Victor’s, and you can get a good sampling of several of them by ordering the “1492 Aperitivo Cubano” for two ($32). Or you can order individual apps à la carte, such as a brisk ceviche of Florida red snapper with a citrus marinade, red onion, mango and avocado ($17); a “Havana guac” of avocado, tomato, cilantro, onions, lime, tropical cheese and tropical root chips ($13); excellent Cuban quesadillas with Creole shrimp and manchego cheese ($13); handmade sweet plantain croquettes called bartolitos stuffed with roast pork, black bean purée and goat’s cheese ($13); plump ham croquettes with tomato-cachuca pepper sauce ($10); puff pastry empanadas of succulently braised chicken, mango and a mango-habanero sauce ($10); fried plantains topped with morsels of fresh pork ($11); and Cuban style beef with peppery chorizo and pork sliders with matchstick fries ($14). Every one of them has its own distinct flavors, textures and savoriness.
If you have found Cuban food working-man heavy in the past, be aware that Victor’s Café uses no lard in the cooking, substituting lighter olive oil. Thus, the specialty of ropa vieja ($32) is slowly braised, shredded skirt steak in an aromatic, rich but not heavy garlic, tomato, onion and pepper sauce, while pan-fried shredded vaca frita is skirt steak with red onions and a tangy-sweet Seville orange and garlicky mojo. One of the best dishes is the lechon asado of 24-hour marinated roast pig cooked in Cuban-style mojo with plenty of garlic, yucca and moros black beans ($32). It arrives with crackling crisp skin and buttery flesh beneath. All main courses come with rice and black beans, but I also urge you to try one of the rice dishes like the arroz con pollo à la chorrera ($26) in a casserole, which easily serves four as a side dish or two as a main.
There are five seafood dishes, though oddly two of them are salmon, a fish that swims in waters a long way from Cuba. Much better are the Florida red snapper fillet with green plantain crust, sofrito and the starchy mash called fufu ($37) or you can have it grilled with corn, cherry tomatoes, scallions and cilantro ($37). There is also enchiladas of shrimp and a spicy Creole sauce with boniato purée and boniato crisps ($29).
At least share a dessert ($8-$11) like the Cuban flan with caramel sauce; the warm guava cobbler; the cinnamon-scented rice pudding, the wonderfully rich and sweet tres leches sponge cake; and the hot, crunchy churros with three dipping sauces are irresistible.
Victor’s Café is, as noted, smack in the theater district and, while they do not have a specific pre-theater menu, the place is always hopping by 5:30, and it’s a good place to come for a drink after theater at that lounge.
I am so glad to see Victors Café back open and definitely in the swing of things. It may be a radical departure from the kind of restaurants you find in Havana these days (which Cubans cannot eat at), but there is definitely a New York swagger to Victor’s Café that makes it all the more sexy and appealing.
236 West 52nd Street
Victor’s Café is open for dinner Wed.-Sat.