Check Cubana Social out in Brooklyn Magazine!
Brooklyn Magazine 3/6/14 by Henry Stewart
Going vegan might be a hipster cliché, but meat-eating actually feels like a bigger part of today’s dominant counterculture. Hipster iconography has always been rooted in nostalgia for, and ironic reclamation of, signifiers of 70s suburbia—the white flight world their parents created, from which they’d eventually escape to return to the cities: mustaches, Pabst, big glasses, big hair, etc. Along with these motifs comes meat—backyard barbecues and roasts on the dinner table. The socially conscious hipster has tweaked this quiddity; just look at Williamsburg’s Meat Hook, which offers local meat from small family farms (think “grass-fed beef”) as well as classes in butchering your own carcasses or making your own sausages.
Still, this push toward omnivorism could be interpreted as a rejection of the vegetarian/vegan trends that have typically been a part of middle-class youth culture since at least the mid-20th century: chances are you know someone who’s rejected meat—or that you’ve done it yourself! I’ve been trying to eat vegan for the last three years and been a vegetarian since 2005; I first got into it when I was in college, when a variety of people encouraged me and served as living examples of its feasibility. Cut to a decade later: the vegans I knew are eating eggs, and the vegetarians are eating fish, or at least bivalves, or they gave it up altogether! For many, vegetarianism is just a phase.
I’ve become the only vegetarian at parties and the only vegan in the office—the one who has to bring his own dinner to Chinese New Year and sit out pizza parties. Between my own experience and the rise of trendy meat-eating, I wondered, is that indicative of the borough at large? What is the state of vegetarianism in Brooklyn? I reached out to several restaurateurs, chefs and others in the food industry to get a sense of how much they have to think about vegetarian options, whether that’s changed over the years, what kinds of people ask about meat-less options, and whether it depends on the neighborhood in which they operate. Here’s some of what they told us. In short? The state of vegetarianism is stronger than it might sometimes feel—but it’s still anything but simple.
Owner, Cubana Social (Cuban-Caribbean Restaurant, Williamsburg)
Serving vegetarian and vegan options was written into our mission. I envisioned a space where omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike could dine comfortably together at one table. And it’s very exciting to see that dream realized! At Cubana Social, we proudly celebrate the history of Cuban and Caribbean cooking. We serve traditional dishes straight from my own Grandma’s kitchen like Lechon Asado (eight-hour roasted pork) or Ropa Vieja (grass-fed brisket stew). I view eating animals as part of our collective history and culture as humans, most certainly with the Caribbean-inspired food we serve. But that narrative is evolving in a meaningful way, and we’re super excited to debunk the idea that this type of cuisine, specifically, is all about pork, beans, and fried food.
Some of our most popular dishes happen to be vegan—true story! Like our Kale & Avocado Salad, Seasonal Market Plate, Black Bean & Shiitake Burger, Chiquita Sandwich, Tofu Picadillo Empanada, and Crispy Avocado. Additionally, nearly all of our side dishes are vegan-friendly and true to Caribbean cuisine. Sweet plantains and yuca are of the earth and delectable for all. We’re excited about this as clean eaters but don’t make a big deal about it. Mother Nature deserves the credit here, after all.
That said, we add meat, stocks, dairy, butter, etc. to dishes only when we feel a dish calls for it. We highlight it, make it truly special, and celebrate the local sustainable farmers and fisherman we source our meat, dairy, and seafood from. These individuals, who I am proud to celebrate, are caring for animals humanely and giving back to the earth.
As a chef, I think vegetables are so much fun to cook. They hold flavor so damn well, there are thousands more varieties of plant species than meat, and their availability changes seasonally. That alone offers endless possibilities for creative challenges.
Is it a “Williamsburg thing”? I think so many neighborhood restaurants are catching on to a long-lasting, healthy trend. But it’s more than a trend. I do recognize that we all see a demand and are accommodating diners. Which is awesome! If we step outside this neighborhood, I think it’s important to acknowledge that Williamsburg as a whole is behind the times on both the vegetable and locally sourced scene when compared to other cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Portland.
Since we opened in 2010, we have seen the demand for veggie options increase. I think that makes a lot of sense, and I predict it’ll continue.