My Neighborhood Melting Pot
I mentioned El Gran Castillo de Jagua in a previous post. This greasy spoon is one of the best rice & beans joints in the city, but another reason I love it is for the vibe. New York may technically be an integrated city, but frankly there are few eateries where you’ll find such a consistent racial mix. The restaurant is on Flatbush Avenue at Carlton Place, which is on the cusp of Prospect Heights, a largely African-American middle-class neighborhood, and Park Slope, a relatively affluent, mostly white neighborhood. In addition to blacks and whites from the surrounding neighborhoods, the restaurant draws Latinos from all over the city, as I learned from a Boricua who lives in upper Manhattan and a Cuban from Queens, both great fans of the place. The clientele is as diverse in age and economic class as it is in race. The food is great, the staff is nice, and I just get this warm & fuzzy feeling from a place where everybody is so welcome and at home. In fact, it was on the subject of El Gran Castillo that some old friends revealed their true, unfortunate colors. This white couple, who lived in the neighborhood for a while, once mentioned that they stopped eating there because they always felt uncomfortable, like they weren’t welcome. Talk about projection. They eventually moved to the suburbs, where I’m sure they’re more comfortable.
Apparently there are a number of restaurants in various places called El Castillo de Jagua, or variants thereof, including one in Havana, all named for a famous castle in Cienfuegos, Cuba, though the keepers of my Castillo are Dominican, and I guess you'd call the menu Dominican-Cuban. The beans of choice are habichuelas (pink beans), a cornerstone of Dominican cuisine, rather than the more characteristically Cuban black beans. El Gran Castillo does make a great Cuban Sandwich, one of the best. Their rotisserie chicken is very good, but even better is the broiled chicken, in natural juices with plenty of garlic. Their rice dishes, like arroz con calamares en su tinta (squid with inky rice) or arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) are excellent too. Large bowls of soup, at about $3.50, are ample enough for a light meal, and vary by day, with chicken always available, most of them overflowing with starchy vegetables like yucca, plantains, potatoes and carrots. I once took a couple of San Francisco foodie friends there for, among other things, the deliciously caloric mofongo (actually a Puerto Rican dish), and after that all sorts of people started visiting Brooklyn from the Bay Area, demanding I take them to El Gran Castillo. All right, one other couple.
Go there, eat well, and feel optimistic, at least for the duration of a meal.