Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Then and Now: La Unica Caridad Restaurant, NYC

La Caridad
La Caridad Restaurant, Broadway and 78th, ca. 1970.
Life is not just epic events and huge buildings. One of the themes of this blog is the details of life matter. Corner joints may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but they serve a purpose and affect local residents in underappreciated ways. They give a neighborhood character, provide a place to meet people, and also often offer tasty treats for the discerning foodie. You also might spot a celebrity, you never know when that will happen in New York.

One such neighborhood eatery was La Caridad (technically called "La Unica Caridad"). Located on the southwest corner of Broadway and 78th Street, it was a neighborhood fixture for 52 years. Opened in 1968, La Caridad offered Chino Latino food, which blends Mexican and Chinese food. Here, we do a then-and-now comparison of La Caridad on the Upper West Side.
La Caridad
La Caridad (then called "La Caridad 78 restaurant") in October 2007 (Michael Minn).
One of the things that endlessly fascinates me about New York City is that you can pick out a random photo from decades ago and it will have surprisingly recent echoes. Such is the case with the 1970s photo at the top of this page.
La Caridad
The La Caridad takeout menu in June 2009. Note that this is the Cuban menu, the Chinese food menu was on the other side.
You might think that some old black-and-white photo from before when most of the people reading this were born is just some historical artifact. Well, it is, but the restaurant itself lasted until very recently.
La Caridad
The name Caridad is a girl's name that is popular in Cuba. It means "Charity." La Caridad apparently had different names through the years at its iconic location at the corner of 78th Street and Broadway. Just a random search of photographs shows it being called La Unica Caridad, La Caridad, and La Caridad 78 Restaurant. It was always known as La Caridad, though.
La Caridad
La Caridad changed over the years from the 1950s counter-seating diner setting shown in the top photograph to a more typical diner setting, with tables where you could eat and get in and out of quickly.
The delightful thing about neighborhood joints like La Caridad is that you could get good, cheap food that you'll never find at the big chains. Just pop in during a day of shopping and grab some quick vaca frita or sesame chicken, in and out within half an hour for under $10 per person. Try doing all that at the Golden Arches.
La Caridad
La Caridad, May 2009 (Google Street View).
La Caridad's founder, Raphael Lee, was a Chinese immigrant who had lived in Havana. He developed a love for both Chinese food and local Cuban delicacies from that city’s Chinatown. While the food is called "fusion," however, they never really and truly melded. You didn't get fried plantains and chicken with cashews on the same plate. The restaurant had its ups and downs over the years - it was temporarily shut down by the Department of Health in 2016 when live roaches were found in the kitchen - but it lasted for five decades, and that ain't beanbag.
La Caridad
Let's not get too rhapsodic about the quality of the food. To be blunt, the Chinese food was standard Manhattan Chinese American (want some General Tso's Pork Chops?), while the Cuban dishes were on a separate part of the menu. If you were looking for something exotic and an "experience," you could turn the menu to the Cuban pages and order some sancocho soup. Your companion, meanwhile, could stay in the comfortable Chinese menu section and choose the nice and safe Crispy Spring Roll followed by Sesame Chicken. But it was still a melange of styles, with large portions of interesting fare served without any fuss.
La Caridad
La Caridad, June 2019 (Google Street View).
La Caridad closed in July 2020. Even the New York Times took notice, that's how iconic La Caridad had become. Again, you may never have heard of this random restaurant in the middle of so many other restaurants, but many neighborhood people develop a bond with these local joints and are sad when they finally disappear. They mean something to someone and thus are important for that reason alone. Plus, there are workers there who develop relationships and a sense of identity from working there and it's sad for them, too, when the place finally shuts down.

Whether the closing was related to the pandemic is an open question, though that likely had something to do with it. Local residents noticed employees emptying out the store in the preceding weeks and the owner did not disclose why he was leaving. Taking a wild guess, the cause was probably a combination of the pandemic and rising rents. Who knows if La Caridad will ever be back, sometimes these restaurants pop up in other locations where the rents are low like they were when the restaurant was founded. But the memories remain of the glorious takeout and ambiance of a classic local joint.
La Caridad
La Caridad ca. 2020 (Robert K. Chin).

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