May 16, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Coppelia Night Music

Pastry star Pichet Ong frosts cakes worthy of a Thiebaud painting. Photo: Steven Richter
Pastry star Pichet Ong frosts cakes worthy of a Thiebaud painting. Photo: Steven Richter


       The film noir romance of still forbidden Havana. The lure of breakfast all day in a 24-hour diner. A bright beacon of retro charm and gentle prices on a weary stretch of West 14th Street. Coppelia, Cuban with Latin rhythms by Toloache’s chef-owner Julian Medina and classic sweets by Pichet Ong, felt primed to be a torrid zone, even on our early visit. It was not easy to choose from the placemat menu. I wanted everything.


Coppelia glows on West 14th Street with a spiffy retro luncheonette look. Photo: Steven Richter


       Quickly I decided I could live without deep fried pork skin in my macaroni and cheese though I did find the house’s chicharrón fetish amusing: in the romaine salad, the fried Cubano burger, even the sundae. A variation of the free-for-all of salt crystals flying elsewhere? I thought the irrepressible staff of dancing chiclets needed time to settle in. Still I imagined I could feel heat rising.


Fabulous huevos rancheros from the breakfast-all-day listing. Photo: Steven Richter


       First week home from my floating retreat on the Seabourn/Sojurn I was back at Coppelia, shocked to see we had our choice of tables on a Saturday evening. Has the late-night world lost its radar? Where are journalists, once ink-stained wretches, now computer eye-strained needing R&R?  The late night kitchen crews hungry for a wind-down? Surely they would love these sunny side-up huevos rancheros on a first-rate house made corn tortilla with tomatillo giving rice-and-bean moros a burst of umami. And they’d mellow out and fill up on this standout quesadilla Cubano – sparked with turkey, bacon, pico de gallo and a melt of chihuahua cheese.


Here’s the quesadilla Cubano with turkey and bacon. It’s gone veggie on new menu. Photo: Steven Richter.


       It seems Coppelia is still waiting for its liquor license. Maybe that explains the calm and the delay in extending hours around the clock.  Much to my shock, I’m almost seduced tonight by a welcome offering of chicharron with a quartet of salsas for dipping – the rinds are so fresh, greaseless and carefully salted. It’s not on the menu, but could be, for our town’s hog-smitten.


When the guac is on, it’s pebbly and hot with fabulous chips. Photo: Steven Richter


       Guacamole is never the same even in the same place, alas. So much depends on the fruit itself and the whimsy of the mixologist, but tonight the texture is perfect. Hot heads can rev up the heat with a splash of fiery salsa. And the mix of chips piled high on top - Peruvian potato chips, white and sweet potato, house corn tortillas, yucca chips, cassava chips - show the United Nations at its best.


Cakemaster Ong up front at the marble counter, manager Ricardo pacing. Photo: Steven Richter. 


       With its smart 50s look - bright blue booths, red linoleum-topped tables, collages in light boxes, cheap unmatched silverware, the long marble counter with Ong’s layer cakes worthy of a Thibaut painting on covered pedestal stands – the place is as cheery as our waiter Juan Carlos.

        I won’t say you can’t stay on your diet here. Certainly you don’t need to order nachos, the luscious yucca rellena croquette oozing cheese and beef picadillo (just $2.25) or “Pan Frances,” challah French toast with bananas and dulce de leche. There’s flounder seviche,  an organic turkey burger, a chicharrón-free salad, and salmon with boniato purée, if you must.


The chef stuffed our Cubano sandwich so full it didn’t compress. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our crowd will be trying the pizza Cubano with roasted pork and pickles, arepa with roasted chicken, avocado and chipotle salsa (the corn cake may be chewy or freshly griddled, depending), and the Cubano sandwich. Given free range, the Road Food Warrior will pick that pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickle legend every time. 


Chicharron tumble over the first-rate pernil – pork slivers yucca logs. Photo: Steven Richter


       Tonight we’re already blissed out on yucca croquette, my huevos rancheros and the essential quesadilla. Plus arepas, one for each of us, a gift from the kitchen. I don’t think the chef’s heart is in the disappointingly pedestrian sancocho soup. I’m sharing the fine pernil, tendrils of roasted pork piled on steamed yucca.  Steven can only put away half of the oversize sandwich we are served. The photo is misleading. Our guest went back a week later and, though he loved his Cubano, it was smaller, small enough to be more properly pressed.


Crispy pork belly and chicharron make a salty macaroni statement. Photo: Steven Richter.


       Watching the kitchen buckle down – the menu’s tilapia has been replaced by flounder in the fish tacos and salmon as a plato principales – I might even try the macaroni again. What do I mean, might?  Of course I will. It isn’t enough to be on record requiring mac-n-cheese for your last meal. I could be hit by a bus and not have time for dinner.


Steven is not a dessert guy but he digs pineapple-topped cheesecake. Photo: Steven Richter.


       If you’re like me and never know when you’ve eaten enough until it’s too late, do make an effort to remember that desserts – rice con leche brûlée and passion fruit, tres leches cake with mango, pineapple cheesecake, mostly $6.50 - are not to be missed. You might even fall for the house sundae – with chocolate, caramel-like cajeta, and chicharrón. So don’t try to divide one marvelous Mexican walnut cookie ($1.25) for the table. 

        Do you think of Ong first as I do for his inventive riff on Asian and Indian desserts at Spice Market? He just opened Qi Bangkok on Ninth Avenue near Times Square. That doesn’t mean he can’t think Cuban or Latin or diner? “Julian and I are old friends for years,” he explains. “We’ve traveled together with his family.” 

        Ong has come in at about nine tonight to finish a cake for the birthday party in the back room. He opens his suitcase to don an apron from his new chef clothing line. “As soon as I get my commissary going, I won’t have to come in to frost a cake,” he confides.

        Of course we’ll be back. Coppelia suits me and Steven too. The cozy luncheonette feel, the explosions of excess, the underground prices.  I can even hop on a subway if I’m pinching pennies.  Next time I’m here I plan to do as much damage as I can and leave a corner of room to taste the carrot cake with Manchego and lime. Watch for a tweet.

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