By Wendy Leung
An always-crowded restaurant in the hip part of New York City's upper east side is known by different names to different people. "Flor de Mayo" is what many in the neighborhood call it, but to some, "Wu Yue Hua" has a familiar ring.
Perhaps Flor de Mayo has an identity crisis. Its menu -- in English, Spanish and Chinese -- boasts standards such as barbecue spare ribs and the ubiquitous moo goo gai pan. But a few pages over there are lesser known delights such as higado de pollo salteado (chicken liver with green pepper) and the tempting longosta enchilada (lobster with deviled sauce).
But restaurant manager Jose Chu assures there is no identity confusion -- and no fusion going on -- at all.
Chu, and his brother Philip who owns the restaurant, are Chinese Americans who have immigrated to the United States by the way of South America. They are Chino-Latinos, immigrants with a past as colorful and eclectic as the fragrant stews they dish out.
The Chu brothers left their native Hong Kong to join their father who moved to Peru during the poverty-ridden 1960s of China. Jose Chu said, as a boy who was born and raised in Hong Kong, it was hard to assimilate to Peruvian culture. In the late 1970s, the two moved to the United States where they worked in cafeteria-styled Cuban Chinese restaurants, which were popular at the time. Many in Cuba, including Cuban Chinese had fled the Fidel Castro regime. They made fried rice, spoke Spanish and learned the restaurant trade as many families in the Chinese diaspora do. Now they are the backbone of two thriving eateries with intentions of opening a third.
Employees of both restaurants originate from nearly every corner of the globe. Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia are just some of the countries represented. The group is used to speaking a combination of Chinese, English and Spanish, said Chu.
According to Chu, New York City was home to around 200 Chino-Latinos working in eateries from the 1960s to the 80s. Now the number has dwindled to a dozen or so restaurants in upper Manhattan, with some in Brooklyn and in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. There is even a Cuban Chinese Benevolent Association in Chinatown but Chu, who once knew the community well, has fallen out of touch.
“I ’m a fixture here, ” said Chu at the Flor de Mayo on Amsterdam Avenue. “I spend so much time in a restaurant I don ’t know the rest of the world. ”
It ’s no wonder that running Flor de Mayo is so time consuming. It's a popular, wide-ranging restaurant. The menu is extensive and with flavors that tempt the palette unlike trendy offerings that blandly fuse cultures. It ’s hard to go wrong with the Peruvian specials as the main course. Seco de res (Peruvian beef stew in a cilantro sauce) is shockingly emerald but the sauce fails to overwhelm; it instead marries the tenderness of the meat perfectly. For a simpler fare, the Filete de Pescado Empanizado (fried filet of sole) is also noteworthy.
There is also a nod to the Chus ’ birth place. Among the Hong Kong specials are Buddha ’s smile -- a version of Buddha ’s feast -- which is a mix of Chinese broccoli, fresh and straw mushroom with oyster sauce and both pork and chicken kung pao style.
Chu said most customers order a mixture of dishes, with a ceviche and barbecue spare ribs to start.
The clientele has changed with the times since the Chus first opened the Broadway location in 1988. Chu said the Amsterdam Avenue location draws a lot of Asians.
“The neighborhood changes, the city changes, but there is always a lot of Americans who really love our food, ” he said.
At another Chinese-Latin restaurant further downtown, manager Michael Lan of Dinastia China said his clientele is predominantly Latino with a young crowd coming in from the nearby Juilliard School.