Nuevo Jardin de China is one of those places that I’ve walked past literally 100 times, without really noticing it. Chinese food in Astoria? Meh. Not when there’s baklava and mezedes as far as the eye can see.
But wait… “Nuevo Jardin de China” is, um, Spanish. Fine, it’s probably just one of those places that New Yorkers love to joke about: we have Mexicans who make Chinese food and Chinese immigrants who make tacos. This must be in the latter category, right?
Nope. This is authentic fusion: the restaurant is owned by ethnic Chinese immigrants from Cuba. Chino-Latino food used to be incredibly common in NYC, and there are still more than a dozen NYC restaurants owned by ethnic Chinese from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba.
If you’re not a veteran of the New York Chino-Latino scene, Nuevo Jardin can be a little bit disorienting. The staff all look Chinese, the small TV above the bar shows Sinovision, and the bar features gooey tiki-bar-type drinks. But the stereo was blaring salsa music when I walked in. I could swear that the Hello Kitty statue was totally moving her hips instead of just her paw.
Anyway, I was mostly curious about the “Latino” part of “Chino-Latino food”, so I ordered the lunch special of ropa vieja to go – literally, “old clothes,” a Cuban dish consisting of beef simmered in peppers and onions until it disintegrates into soft threads of meat.
Once I opened my to-go bag, I was even more disoriented. The bag contained odd array of condiments: sweet and sour sauce, soy sauce, butter, Italian dressing and a slice of lemon (for the iceberg lettuce salad), and two fortune cookies. The ropa vieja was also served with a chunk of baguette and shrimp-and-pork fried rice.
The ropa vieja looked and tasted like typical Americanized Chinese food: the beef and onions and peppers were stewed in a sweet, unnaturally red sauce – sort of like the sweet and sour pork sauce at, say, Panda Express. It wasn’t what I expected, since it didn’t remotely resemble any other ropa vieja I’d ever eaten before. I ate half of the dish, then put it aside while I survived a three-hour work meeting. I wasn’t excited to eat more of it.
After my meeting, I ate the other half anyway. Because, you know, it was food, and it happened to be in the same room as me. And a funny thing happened: I actually enjoyed it. Yeah, the sauce was on the sweet side, but not unpleasantly so, and it had a nice onion flavor to it. The fried rice seemed incongruous at first, but it was actually pretty good, and the extra bits of meat and egg and shrimp and oil mellowed out the sweetness of the sauce.
So here’s the thing: at first, my not-totally-open mind was playing mean tricks on my stomach. When I expected Cuban ropa vieja, I thought the dish was gawdawful. But as soon as I forgot my expectations and energetically stuck my snout into the leftovers… well, it was actually a pretty tasty meal.
So yeah, maybe Chinese ropa vieja doesn’t seem to make much sense at first. And neither does a salsa-dancing Hello Kitty statue. But both could be kinda cute, right?
Nuevo Jardin de China
32-05 Broadway, Astoria, Queens
Subway: Broadway (N, Q trains)