The first time I ever had Cuban food I was in a restaurant pressed between two people I barely knew trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had made it to Havana. After spending a semester and a half learning about the island’s politics and culture, my college classmates and I, along with our two professors, spent a week in Cuba. The six-day trip was a whirlwind of meals, free drinks, walking tours, buses, photo ops, and museum visits. By the time we were all ushered onto the plane home, the activities and meals blurred together into one long montage.
What I do remember is how delicious rum drinks are, how big my hair gets in tropical climates, almost being detained in the Havana airport (it involved an outdated passport photo and much confusion), and feeling a strong sense of home. As far as I know, I have no genetic ties to Cuba—my mom is from Oklahoma; my dad is also from the South but jokes that we are Cuban—but being surrounded by people who looked like me and my family gave me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t known I was craving.
In the five years since that trip, my memories have faded, but I still remember the taste of ropa vieja. Literally translated as “old clothes,” ropa vieja is Cuba’s national dish, consisting of shredded beef and bell peppers simmered for hours in a tomato sauce and served with rice and beans. As one of my professors explained, the story goes that a long time ago in Spain (where magic and realism merged), a poor man desperate to feed his family but lacking food or money took the clothes off his back, shredded them into bite-size pieces, and added them to a pot of boiling water. As the clothes cooked, the man prayed over them, and a few hours later the clothes were transformed into a delicious meat stew.
The true story of ropa vieja is a bit less magical. Around 500 years ago, Sephardic Jews in Spain’s Iberian Peninsula would slow cook a hearty meat stew the night before the Sabbath. The meal traveled to the Caribbean with Spanish sailors, and through the centuries it evolved into the dish it is today. Why it’s called ropa vieja remains a bit of a mystery, though.
Stew is part of my DNA. It’s one of my dad’s culinary specialties. Every year during the winter, to warm us in the freezing Chicago weather, he’d make hearty dishes like jambalaya or beef stew based on recipes passed down to him from his parents.
I never got a chance to meet my grandparents, so everything I know about them has been told to me by my aunt and dad. I know that Grandpa Jelly was born in Arkansas near the end of the 19th century. I know that he was a parlor car porter on the railroad and a professional baseball player in the Negro Leagues. I know that Grandma Dorothy was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, served in the Navy, and cooked food so good you dreamed about it.
The only physical memories I have of them is eating the stews they once cooked for my dad and his sister, which they in turn cooked for us. When I was young, I would shadow my dad in the kitchen, trying to guess the recipe, but when I got older we cooked together. He taught me about “the holy trinity” of bell peppers, onions, and celery and how to properly brown the stew meat. Those stews, and the memories of learning how to cook them, are my favorites. As an adult, whenever I’m feeling down, I pull out my stockpot and start simmering. No wonder ropa vieja has become my ideal comfort food.
For the longest time, whenever I craved ropa vieja, I was afraid to try it at restaurants in the U.S. for fear of being disappointed. But once my friend Carmen introduced me to Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine (happily with locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn), I knew I’d found my place and I’ve never looked back.
Peering through the protective glass during my first visit, I was at first tempted by the golden baked chicken, but once I saw the heaping pile of shredded beef and colorful bell peppers, I knew why I was there.
I’m a big believer in the paradox of quick-serve restaurants. Often, the less shiny and curated the environment, the better the food. A counter-serve restaurant, Sophie’s is low on ambience, high on Cuban flavors. The laminated tables and the glass protecting the food evoked some of my favorite spots that feature cheap and tasty food for people in a hurry. Cuban food is meant to be nonfussy, down-to-earth cuisine, and Sophie’s down-to-earth decor helped convince me that this place was legit. Peering through the protective glass during my first visit, I was at first tempted by the golden baked chicken, but once I saw the heaping pile of shredded beef and colorful bell peppers, I knew why I was there.
Carmen and I got our food in plastic containers and took a short walk into Central Park to find a spot to eat. The lunch date was meant to be mini reunion, but as soon as we cracked open the lids the only conversations were between us and our food.
Sophie’s prides itself on cooking Cuban food the traditional way. Its ropa vieja uses flank steak, which shreds beautifully but toughens during the lengthy cooking time. I’m not gonna lie: Sophie’s ropa vieja requires some serious jaw work. But when the food tastes that good, the extra work is worth it. The rice, beans, plantains, and ropa vieja are all served at different temperatures. The rice and beans are savory and pleasantly warm, like they came out of a pan that had been resting on the stove for a while. The plantains are often lukewarm but perfectly caramelized and tender without becoming mushy. The temperature of the ropa vieja depends on how good your timing is. If a new batch has just been placed in the pan, then it can be mouth-burningly hot. If it’s a been a while, then the stew has the same temperature as a second helping at a family dinner. Nothing is too spicy, but everything is well seasoned. Only after eating every last grain of rice could we have a normal chat about school and the post-grad life.
The first Sophie’s Cuban location I went to was up by Columbus Circle, but I’ve also visited the East Village, midtown, and Brooklyn spots more than once. Whenever I feel I need a home-cooked meal, I know just where to go. My favorite way to enjoy Sophie’s is to go to the location by Columbus Circle; order the shredded beef with plantains, beans, and yellow rice; ask for extra green sauce; and then take the whole bag to Central Park and sit on the big rock by the entrance to eat and people-watch.
Eating Sophie’s Cuban on that rock was the first time I felt at home in New York. I was only a month into my life here and still very homesick. I was missing the security that comes from being close to my family and I was missing the food I could get in Chicago. But while I was eating that meal, I was reminded of home, warm memories, and, of course, the island I fell in love with. I eat at Sophie’s whenever I get stressed at work or when I’m hosting a guest from out of town. Like all comfort food, it’s great to eat alone when you need a pick-me-up or the culinary equivalent of a warm hug, but it’s even better when enjoyed with the people you love.
Sherri Gardner is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared on TripSavvy and in The Wall Street Journal. You can find more of her writing at srgardner.com.