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“Everything had to remain the same.” In the dining room of Rincon Criollo, a Cuban restaurant in Corona, Esther Acosta recalls the pledge that she and her older brother, Rudesindo (“Rudy”) Acosta, made to their great-uncles when they took the reins of the family business.

The surrounding community has changed in the years since the restaurant opened in 1976. Today, it’s easier to find chaulafan from Ecuador, chalupas from Mexico or chow from many other Latin American countries than to find the shredded, slow-simmered flank steak of a traditional Cuban ropa vieja.

Thanks to the younger Acostas, however, the home-style cooking, the red-and-white-checked tablecloths and the framed photos that nearly blanket the walls evoke not only the Rincon Criollo of the mid-’70s but also another Rincon Criollo from a quarter-century earlier, in Cuba itself.

“My grandfather was orphaned at a young age,” Esther tells us. In 1942, Rudesindo Acosta – his grandson shares the name – was 13 and the eldest of six children when his parents passed away. To support themselves, the young Acostas sold fruits and root vegetables on the streets of Santiago de las Vegas, which today is a ward of Havana but at the time was an independent municipality on the outskirts of the Cuban capital. Their small business provided the siblings with food, shelter and some modest savings, and within a few years they were well-known throughout their hometown.

In 1949, Rudesindo and his two youngest brothers, Rodobaldo (“Baldo”) and Jesus Rene, invested the family’s savings in a small plot of land and built, with their own hands, a humble one-room restaurant they called Rincon Criollo. Rene had seen a Cuban musical film of the same name, and the brothers hoped that their restaurant could offer the same lively atmosphere.

Eventually, it did. “The whole family worked there,” Esther says, adding that “all the recipes” were their own. For a dozen years beginning in 1950, when the restaurant opened, Rincon Criollo grew in popularity and in size, adding a bandstand and terrace for dancing, a playground – pony rides included – for children, private dining rooms and, ultimately, seats for more than 2,000 guests.

The revolution that ousted Cuban President Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Eve 1958, however, gave power to a government that had little love for private enterprise. In 1962, the Castro government took possession of the restaurant.

After this dispiriting loss, Rudesindo remained in Cuba – he didn’t believe that the Castro government would last – but Baldo and Rene, determined to make a fresh start, emigrated to New York. Since they didn’t speak English, Esther notes, her great-uncles worked many jobs, often in factories, with few opportunities to do more than scrimp and save. But food was not far from their minds: For a time, they worked as mobile vendors, selling Cuban sandwiches in Central Park. The sandwich we enjoyed in Corona while researching this story – accompanied by plantain chips, and dressed (by us) with spoonfuls of garlic sauce – was a direct descendant of those sandwiches in the park.

An old friend from Santiago de las Vegas nudged the brothers further toward food. He’d recently opened a butcher shop in Queens called Grande Mundo; today, it’s known as El Mundo, under different ownership. Perhaps with an eye toward nurturing a regular business customer, he persuaded Rene and Baldo to open a restaurant up the road. Rincon Criollo was reborn.

The opening-day organizational chart, Esther tells us, would simply have been Baldo at the stovetop, Rene at the tables. The recipes that fared so well in Cuba were just as popular in Corona, and eventually, to grow their business, the brothers had to take on helping hands. But to this day, Esther tells us, the restaurant hires only “friends or family, not from outside.”

Turn the calendar ahead to 2011. Rudy and Esther – who had been born in Miami around the time that the Corona restaurant had opened, and who worked there in the hotel-and-hospitality industry ­– wondered, “Why not continue the family business?” Their great-uncles were already in their 80s, and the restaurant that Rene and Baldo had created – or resurrected – by the sweat of their brows was certainly a business worth preserving.

Baldo and Rene “took a lot of convincing,” Esther recalls. She quotes her great-uncles: “We need to see you in action” in the kitchen, in the dining room, in the basement. Ultimately, Esther also notes, there would be “no family discount” for the sale of the restaurant – Esther and Rudy, in equal shares, would have to commit themselves to Rincon Criollo, just as the older Acostas had done.

In a sense, it’s Cuba that’s traveled to Corona.

Indeed, the younger Acostas built on that legacy. In 2015, they opened a second N.Y. location of Rincon Criollo in suburban Long Island, some 25 miles to the east. Rudy, who lives nearby with his family, manages that restaurant; Esther manages the Corona location and lives a few miles to the south, in the neighborhood of Glendale.

In Corona, as previously noted, “everything had to remain the same” – chairs, tables, tablecloths and especially the menu. But the newer location, Esther observes, didn’t need to replicate the older restaurant in every regard. The Long Island location employs a bartender servicing a full bar, flanked by flatscreen TV sets; Corona offers just beer and wine, and the sole entertainment plays on the sound system. In pleasant weather, the new location offers a little outdoor seating; there’s no such room on the sidewalk in Queens.

But according to Esther, the biggest challenge for the Long Island kitchen is the absence of staff with 15 or even 20 years of experience preparing the traditional Acosta family dishes. In Corona, Esther tells us, “we have cooks, not chefs” who use the same ingredients, rely on the same recipes and follow them “to a T.”

We imagine that Rene and Baldo, by insisting on seeing Rudy and Esther “in action,” weren’t merely feeling out the younger Acostas’ willingness to work hard. It’s likely that the older Acostas, through repeated guided tastings over the course of a few years, did their best to pass down the sense memory of family dishes that they’d been living with, intimately, for many decades.

Esther has never traveled to Santiago de las Vegas to seek out those old flavors where they were born. The Acostas no longer have family there, and, she adds, “I come from a generation where you don’t go to Cuba till it’s free.” In a sense, it’s Cuba that’s traveled to Corona.

We’ll never know ourselves whether the dessert that concluded our meal – a rich yet delicate custard capped with coconut caramel – is identical to the flan de coco we might have enjoyed on the terrace of the old Rincon Criollo in Santiago de las Vegas. We do know that it’s Esther’s favorite dessert and, now, one of ours.

Dave Cook

Published on January 19, 2022

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