22 February 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to El Sitio?"

I was frustrated in trying to learn the backstory of El Sitio, a longstanding Cuban restaurant in Woodside. I could not discover the name of the founder, or if the place was still in the same family, or had changed hands. Hey, it's hard detective work when everyone speaks Spanish and you don't. I suspect many writers before me had the same experience, because whenever a reporter writes up this place, all they basically do is say "great Cuban sandwich" and leave it at that. No mention of the joint's history. No quote from the owner. Anyone out there have more solid information on El Sitio? Anyone ever go there in the 1960s or 1970s?
Who Goes There? El Sitio
There aren't many Cuban food choices in New York. So whenever one of the dailies decides to do a piece on the state of Cuban food in the city, you can sure a reporter will take ride on the 7 train to this Woodside outpost under the subway tracks on dirty, dusty Roosevelt Avenue. El Sitio has been here about a half a century. It's founding dates to the 1960s, when there was a great influx of Cubans to America.
It doesn't look like the joint has changed much in that half century. The restaurant is divided into two parts. As you enter, there's a short, six-stool luncheonette counter of orange formica. Regulars tend to stop here, either to order, chat or just linger. Somewhat hilariously, there's a small, sparsely stocked bar behind the counter, in case you want a Johnnie Walker Black with your ropa vieja. If you're interested in a more formal experience, there's a no-frills, dimly lit dining room with small tables and tablecloths under plastic. The expected pictures of Havana are on the walls. And unexpected terrariums filled with sad-looking plants are fitted like windows into the wall dividing the two rooms.
The clientele here is primarily local and largely Latino. The menu is in Spanish and English, but the Spanish comes first. The version of the menu posted above the counter is only in Spanish. Most people come here for the Cubano sandwich, and it is justly famous, made with care and with wonderfully crispy bread. The flavors are fulsome, yet delicate. But I found the ham croquettes and red beans also excellent. The prices are ridiculously cheap. Those sandwiches are under five dollars.
El Sitio does a decent trade in take out. But if a customer is under the impression that he'll be in and out quickly, he's soon put straight. Making the sandwiches is a 10-15-minute process, and the woman monitoring the sandwich press, lovingly basting the bread and meats in butter, isn't going to rush it. That seems to be fine with most of the lunchers, few of whom seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere.
—Brooks of Sheffield

1 comment:

M said...

Love El Sitio. Moved to Woodside 1years ago and have been coming here for maybe 12. The pote gallego soup is excellent. Our standard order is chicharron de pollo with yellow rice, black beans, ripe plantains. The lengua is also good. We usually take out but we have dined in many times. My kids, now teenagers, still love to feed the jukebox, which plays mostly old songs and spanish anthems. The staff are quite friendly. I believe it changed ownership in the last 12 years, however, the "new" management is just as nice. There is another El Sitio in Astoria, just under the 36th Ave Stop of the N. They are related, the owners are, however, the food in Astoria is not as good. In my many years of patronage, I see an older man, (still don't know his name, shame on me) who seems to hold court at the bar. He is always polite and friendly. There seems to be a younger owner nowadays, also nice and friendly. The two regular waitresses a lovely, always calling everyone "Mami". They always throw in extras with our take out like garlic bread and the occasional container of croquetas (little croquettes of ham and cheese.) It is the kind of neighborhood place that we love to run to, and that every neighborhood should have.