On the surface, the fusion of Cuban and Chinese food might seem unorthodox. As with most countries, the etymology of this food culture is intrinsically tied to its geopolitics. Indentured servants first began to arrive in Cuba from China in the 1850s, to work the sugar cane fields.They brought with them their cooking techniques, as well as spices indigenous to the far east. The combination of Chinese with native Tainos, Spanish colonizers, and Africans – both freed and slaves – is responsible for the melange of Asian and Caribbean flavor that is Cuban-Chinese food, which has been a significant part of New York City food culture for decades.
This history is well known to Joy Daniel, the mixologist behind Calle Dão’s cocktail menu. In Manhattan, the recently opened Chelsea location from restauranteur Marco Britti and chef Bradley Warner continues the exploration of this unique gastronomic experience.
“I fell in love with bartending,” says Daniel. A seasoned hospitality veteran of Trinidadian descent, Daniel is no stranger to working with unconventional flavors. The light, vegetal quality of the Alma cocktail provides equilibrium to the spice and oils of our appetizers: oxtail croquetas, fried pig ears, and shiitake spring rolls. This balance is by design: “The food is what interests me,” says Daniel. “I consider drinks to be a form of food, and design my cocktail menu based on the ingredients the chef is using, to amplify flavors from the kitchen.”
Daniel’s reverence for ethnic authenticity is evidenced in her playful concoctions, artfully mixing traditional base spirits with exotic elements. From the yuzu bitters of the Alma cocktail, to the shisho leaves of the Calle Dão Mojito, to the edamame garnish on the Barrio
Chino, her choices are evocative of something distant yet familiar. Listening to Daniel describe her approach to cocktail creation gives one the impression that she is painting, using herbs to bring out texture and flavor. “Instead of using mint I use Vietnamese lemon mint leaves. Sage, tarragon, thyme: once you know how to use flavors you can do amazing things.”
Daniel is also known for adding depth and complexity to her cocktails through infusion. “I use roasted jalepeño-infused tequila for my Margarita” she says. “Infusing liquor gives nuance and levels, but the levels have to be cohesive.” Like the food at Calle de Dão, the cocktails tend to be a procession of flavors: each
sip is a journey. Given the current state of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a trip to Chelsea might be the closest thing anyone gets to sampling this singular experience for the foreseeable future.