Havana Without a Backpack

An attempt to find decent food in Times Square…

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hate tourists because they wear backpacks.

It’s an undignified way for an adult human being to carry their belongings. Take a cue from the locals and carry a purse (or—I’m sorry—“messenger bag,” if you’re really that insecure), but have some self-respect and get a grown-up bag. Moreover, wearing a backpack so guilelessly identifies one as an easy mark. Oh, you’ve decided to identify yourself as a hapless out-of-towner by strapping your personal effects behind you, outside of your line of vision, where I could simply unzip and snag the contents without you even noticing? I should rob you just to teach you a lesson.

Most of all though, backpacks are entirely unnecessary for sightseeing in New York.

It annoys me to see my adopted city treated as a wilderness, requiring “gear” more suited to camping. The backpacks are always bulging too—what is even in them? Water? We have that here—more water than you could ever drink, some of it with bubbles and flavors. Are you schlepping snacks? You’re in snacktown, my friend. An extra three sweaters? Embrace the randomness of life and know that you can never truly plan for the weather. You’re in a massive urban center, and there is absolutely no need load up on supplies like a sherpa dragging rich white idiots up Everest.

Of course, some tourists are indistinguishable from locals, but still others combine their backpacks with even more vulgar affectations, as if reveling in their conspicuousness.

Germans, for example, are particularly bad at matching pace with a crowd, which is unfortunate when you get stuck behind them as they often travel in impenetrable blocs of four or five. In touristy areas it’s easy to get stuck behind them, as they lumber teutonically, impassable and oblivious, the elderly and women with strollers whizzing by and through them as soon as they see a passable breach.

I single out the Germans here not because my cultural chauvinism does not extend to other groups, but because Germans are the group I can single out without getting yelled at—not even by Germans. This is because of the Holocaust.

But we’re getting off track.

It goes without saying that I hate Times Square, the Mecca for backpack-wearing tourists. It’s not at all an uncommon opinion, of course, but it’s worth seeing in print. There is some dispute as to whether former Mayor Rudy Giuliani or his predecessor David Dinkins had a bigger hand in “cleaning up” Times Square, but it was a joint effort with the city and the Disney company that pushed out the old porn shops and dives to make way for the sea of chain restaurants, high end hotels and corporate offices that now blight the area. It is the most visited place in the world, attracting 360,000 pedestrians a day; I’m not sure how many are wearing backpacks, but it is a lot.

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I went to Times Square to eat at Margon, the last real diner from before the Disney “cleansing”—at least that’s what everyone says, and my research turned up no others. Margon is a Cuban restaurant, currently staffed and managed entirely by 17 members of the Rivas family. It has occupied its current location since 1987, when a former dishwasher and Dominican immigrant, Rivas senior, took over the restaurant. Before that the space was a go-go bar.

I made my roommate Nick come with me because he is competent and thoughtful and hungry. I believe that while food is not necessarily best experienced socially, it certainly is best evaluated in the company of others. Also I didn’t want to brave the maddening crowds alone.

We actually wove through the throngs with relative ease, down 46th street and over 7th Avenue, past the McDonald’s and the Actor’s Equity building and suddenly, like a mirage, a massive lateral neon sign—a palm tree and flashy letters reading “Havana Central.” It appears a massive Cuban chain restaurant operates directly across the street from Margon. There are four Havana Centrals in total—Times Square, Yonkers, Edison (New Jersey), and The Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, New York (near the JC Penney). It’s essentially a theme restaurant, with decently priced goods and retro decor modeled after Cuba’s “Golden Era,” which their website describes vaguely as “the 1950s.”

Cuban food is chic now, and not just for the suburbanites of Edison and the tourists in Times Square. A delicious place called Pilar opened up a few blocks away from my own apartment, past the retirement housing on my block, past the family neighborhoods and the larger projects, right on the cusp of “cool” Brooklyn. It attracts deep-rooted members of the neighborhood, but also younger crowds and recent transplants. It is “hip” without being hoity-toity or elite.

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Passing the behemoth Havana Central, we spotted the easy-to-miss entrance to Margon. Once inside it became clear how the Rivas family has been able to hold on to the property. The restaurant is incredibly narrow, with barely enough space for the cafeteria-style steam tables and fryers that kept the food hot behind spotless sneeze-guards. Tables are lined up single file against the wall, with a few larger ones in back. The ceiling is also claustrophobically low, and it’s difficult to imagine the go-go dancers once shimmying in such a cramped space.

Despite the confinement of the room and the rows and rows of steaming food, the air was cool and the atmosphere pleasant. Pitbull played on the radio—though not too loudly—and a woman with an easy smile took our order, pouring a beef stew over a massive pile of beans for me. Nick ordered beef as well, something sautéed with peppers, also served with beans and rice. The portions were massive, but we were ambitious.

I also ordered the octopus salad—which Margon is famous for. It had a piecey texture and a subtle flavor—had you not seen the suckers you might think it was light meat turkey in a light vinegar sauce. The rest of the food was uncomplex and perfectly homey—the thick gravy of my stew was so rich I scraped everything that was left onto my beans and rice to ration it. Nick’s dish was every bit of magic you can do with cheap steak—all robust flavor. It was everything you want out of New York “Spanish style” comfort food, with none of the familiar pitfalls. The rice was not dry and the beans were not starchy. The meat was not gristled and the peppers weren’t slimy.

It was a particularly masculine crowd, and Nick blended in more than I thought he would with his Milwaukee electric tool hat and his glasses on the end of a sport-strap. I think I saw one other woman dining. And while Pilar isn’t as lilywhite as your average cidre-serving restaurant (“Would you like to see our SEE-druh menu?”), the diners at Margon were nearly all black or brown. At a large table in the back, men in work vests laughed over their food. A white guy with a handle-bar mustache and a Tommy Bahama t-shirt sat a few tables behind us. A pregnant woman ordered in Spanish, speaking with familiarity to the woman spooning her food. We left very full, and I was far calmer than I had expected to be after a trip to Times Square.

A few days earlier, JetBlue had sent its first commercial flight from the US to Cuba in nearly 50 years, and it seems as if both the urbanites and the suburbanites have their own Cuban fantasies again, whether nostalgic, chic or bohemian. Margon caters to no fantasy at all. It is a place to eat, to eat comfortably and well, and a place to take refuge from the crowds. It was small enough to escape Disney, and it is too small for backpacks.

Photographs courtesy of Jeremiah Moss