During a recent lunch rush at his restaurant on the Upper West Side, Richard Lamm hurried around the dining room fielding dishes like wonton soup, General Tso’s chicken, and fried rice for his regulars.
Not long ago, Mr Lam recommended a plate of crispy chicharrones de pollo to a first-time customer, who the diner learned about from a viral TikTok video he posted in March.
La Dinastia, which opened in 1986, is at the center of an effort by restaurant owners to revive New York City’s Chino Latino cuisine, a slowly dying out cuisine that includes Latinos as well as Chinese dishes such as lo mein. Includes skillet-cooked palomilla steak. and mofongo covered in beef gravy.
Mr. Lam’s struggle to stay relevant recently got a boost from an unlikely source: a series of widely viewed TikTok videos posted over the past few months from the @RighteousEats account that brought scores of new customers to the diner Are. Videos ranging from highlighting dishes on the menu to explaining the history of the restaurant in Spanish are included.
Now, Mr. Lam, 36, finds himself navigating a new frontier, with lines out the door of this neighborhood institution surrounded by trendy fast-casual spots. This moment marks their best – and perhaps last – chance to attract new diners to Chino Latino food, a niche in the New York food scene.
“It’s my time to try and make new customers,” said Mr. Lam, whose father, Juan Lam, opened the restaurant shortly after he was born.
Unlike places that serve fusion foods such as Korean tacos or Mexican pizza, restaurants such as La Dinastia split their menus to showcase distinct Chinese and Latino dishes that can also be served together.
Today there are only a handful of Chino Latino restaurants left in New York, but at one point, there were at least 20, said Lok Siu, professor of Asian American and Asian Diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched Chinese Latinos. Many restaurants were opened by the descendants of Chinese immigrants who moved to countries such as Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela in the mid-1800s. He learned to cook the local cuisine and speak Spanish.
As political upheaval and economic instability uprooted people throughout Latin America, Chinese Latinos immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in New York City. Chino Latino cuisine flourished here, Ms. Siu said, because the immigrants found a community in the two cultures. He opened restaurants in the late 1960s to serve working-class Latinos, especially those who lived on the Upper West Side. Over time, as the neighborhood grew more gentrified and the population of Chinese Latinos dwindled, so did the restaurants.
“These are the last vestiges of this cultural phenomenon,” Ms. Liu said of the restaurant. “There is nothing else that marks their long existence.”
Named after Calle Cuchillo, the last remaining street in Chinatown in the Cuban capital, that disappearing history is honored at Marco Britti’s restaurant Calle Dão. It opened in 2014, and has adopted a fusion cooking approach, creating dishes such as roast pork and chorizo with Chinese and Cuban ingredients, and ropa vieja, served with noodles and Sichuan soy glaze.
In the dining room, an enlarged image of the Cuban newspaper Quang Wah Po—printed in Spanish and Chinese—hangs on the wall.
“It’s like Calle Dao’s birth certificate,” said Mr. Britti, 50, an Italian immigrant who moved to Cuba for a short time to learn about salsa music. “It brings the two cultures together.”
The owners of La Dinastia and Flor de Mayo, two traditional Chino Latino restaurants that opened in 1977, have largely kept the food and service the same as when their families started.
Although the two restaurants operate separately, they share a common history. Philip Chu and William Chow immigrated to Peru from Hong Kong in the late 1960s and met Juan Lam. The trio soon moved to New York City and in 1977 acquired a restaurant together with an additional partner, creating Flor de Mayo. In 1985, when the lease expired, the partners parted ways; Mr. Lamm opened La Dinastia where there had previously been a Cuban restaurant, and moved to a new location on Flor de Mayo Broadway. The current owners remain good friends.
Both restaurants have experimented with updated dishes, such as a green sauce made with cilantro and avocado, which pairs well with chicharrones de pollo at La Dinastia, and yuca balls stuffed with sausage, deep-fried and served with a spicy sauce in flor de mayo.
Last month, Brandon Marquez of Midtown East first dined at La Dynastia and shortly thereafter saw a TikTok video about the restaurant by Righteous Eats.
“It reminds me of home,” Mr. Marquez, 24, who is half Filipino and Salvadoran, said of the restaurant, “especially when I saw TikTok and all the Asian people speaking in Spanish.”
Despite the new hype, the biggest challenge these restaurants face is the staff. The chefs in La Dinastia’s kitchen are all Chinese and over time have learned to cook Cuban dishes. Many of the original chefs and waiters retired during the pandemic. Michael Laine, an owner of La Dynastia who has worked there for decades and has a knowledge of the kitchen, is planning his own exit.
“I’ll be there for him,” Mr. Lan, 64, said of the younger Mr. Lam. I am trying to hand over the baton to him. He’s really paying it forward, and he’ll be there when I finally decide to hang up my boots.
At Flor de Mayo, inexperienced chefs start out making dishes like lo mein and fried rice, and learn from chefs who have worked there for nearly 30 years to serve meals like lomo saltado. “But they’re getting old,” said Marvin Chu, 40, an owner who operates three locations of the restaurant with his brother and uncle. “We have more than 100 variants of cooking on our menu. For someone who is new coming and seeing, they get scared.
This variety of food has always interested Chris Scilio, 55, of the Upper West Side. About once a month, he comes to La Dynastia with friends from Hell’s Kitchen and Sparta, N.J. One Steven Grillo, 50, recognized Mr. Lan from a Facebook video.
Regulars like Mr. Scilio have recently had a more difficult time eating at the restaurant because of the long lines, although Mr. Lam, an owner, said he would grab a table if frequent patrons called ahead. Mr. Scilio said he is happy to see the excitement he is getting from social media and new customers.
He said, ‘You have to keep increasing it. “But they always have room for us.”
Susan C. beach Contributed to research.