Puerto Rican Restaurant: Tradition in the Midst of Change



Outside La Taza de Oro. Photo: N.G. Onuoha.

La Taza de Oro: A Restaurant through the Decades in Chelsea from Annie Zak on Vimeo.


In the middle of Eighth Avenue, between West 14 and West 15 Street, La Taza de Oro, Spanish for “the golden cup,” sits dimly lit among the bright lights of neighboring shops.

For 44 years the restaurant has maintained its signature old-fashioned style—the original burgundy leather covering the stools at the counter, aside from occasional repairs; the large yellow menu lining the wall still lists a seven-day selection of meals in Spanish, written boldly in red; customers still order large portions of Puerto-Rican cuisine cooked in a traditional base blend of onions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, tomato paste and a pinch of salt.

At a table next to the entrance, Brooklyn couple Cesar Torres and Matt Saba finished their first meal at the La Taza de Oro. “I like that there are legit old dudes eating here,” joked Torres, 38, a reporter at technology site, Ars Technica. “It’s nice to have this option on Eighth Avenue.”

Torres ordered the Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef dish served with yellow rice and black beans, and Saba had the Bacalao Guisado, salt fish stew served with yellow rice and white beans as well as a coconut pudding he described as “heavenly.” The couple both enjoyed their meals, though Torres admitted he had tasted a better Ropa Vieja at another Puerto Rican restaurant. However, Saba chimed in, “the price is right! This place is affordable.”

Low pricing is an important part of the restaurant’s legacy. “The prices are affordable,” said Maria Montalvo, who has owned and managed La Taza since 1996. “We want to keep the affordability to a certain class of people we are interested in having as our patrons. This neighborhood is changing. But we still have a lot of residents in the area who have lived here many years.”

Robert Chisholm, owner of Chisholm Larsson gallery on Eighth Avenue and West 17 Street, has been visiting La Taza de Oro every Tuesday through Saturday morning for 31 years. Chisholm lives on West 12 Street and walks to the restaurant for a cup of coffee. “We discovered the restaurant right when we opened the gallery,” said the 64-year-old. “They have great coffee; I get the cafe con leche, and I read The New York Times each morning. On Saturdays, I like to spoil myself so I’ll have the western omelette with fries.”

For the last five years, Chisolm has been accompanied by Ann Tynberg, a 94-year-old native New Yorker who lives on West 15 Street. Every morning the two walk from Tynberg’s fourth-floor walk up to La Taza de Oro, where she eats oatmeal and tells stories of her life in the city. Chisholm said it is the only time she gets out of her house because of her osteoporosis. “It’s very much a community,” he said. “We come and we see Dawn, the dog walker, Bonnie and Yolanda—we call her the glamazon because she’s so striking.”

“We’re surrounded by specialty restaurants and we look so different,” said Montalvo, sitting in the basement of her family’s restaurant. “We’re a blast from the past.”

Originally opened in 1947,  La Taza de Oro was sold to Montalvo’s father, Alejandro Vargas, in 1968, and in 1987, he purchased 96 Eighth Avenue, the three-story residential building which includes the restaurant as commercial space. When Vargas wanted to retire in 1996, Montalvo –who lived in Puerto Rico with her husband and five daughters—made the decision to move to New York alone and secure the restaurant. Her family followed months later.

“I always had a feeling that I wanted to come back to New York,” said Montalvo, who was formerly a lawyer in Puerto Rico. “It was a chance—the window opened, and I jumped through it. I told my dad, no, don’t sell. [I] had a feeling my dad would regret it if he sold it.”

After fifteen years of managing and living above La Taza de Oro, Montalvo said she has not regretted the decision. According to her, the neighborhood was once a dangerous area populated by meat packing factories and small companies. During lunchtime, the factory workers and company employees formed long lines outside La Taza.

Over the years, Chelsea’s transformation has changed the restaurant’s customer base, though the old cafeteria feel has remained the same. The evolution of the mid-Manhattan neighborhood has been marked by the erection of luxury high-rise buildings, the arrival of young professionals, the opening of a Whole Foods market and the dwindling presence of mom-and-pop businesses. These changes have had an impact on La Taza de Oro, located just steps away from the new Google building, an eighteen-story establishment the company purchased for $1.9 billion at the end of 2010.

“I wasn’t happy when Google bought the building,” said Montalvo. “111 Eighth Avenue…that building was full of different companies, and they were our customers. Google employees are not our customers because Google takes care of its own people.”

The Google building, owned by Jamestown Properties, housed a number of small data centers with employees who visited La Taza de Oro at lunchtime. Though some of the old customers travel to visit the restaurant from as far away as New Jersey, Montalvo marked the entrance of the billion-dollar tech company as another sign of the neighborhood changing around them. Her hope for the restaurant’s future lies with her daughters, especially, her second-to-last daughter, Alex, who considers taking over ownership of the restaurant when her mother finally decides to retire. Alex, 25, holds a bachelors degree from Syracuse University’s School of Business and currently works for a Japanese trading company in Midtown.

“When she’s here having her breakfast or having her dinner, she unconsciously spots things,” said Montalvo of Alex. “She’s a very important factor for us and so is our [youngest] daughter Elizabeth because they’re tuned in to the operation of the restaurant. I know I can rely on them doing the payroll, paying off providers, checking to see that rules and regulations are complied with.”

Seated in a chair next to her mother, Alex smiled. “It’s a pride and joy of being here, what, 45 years, my sisters and I always talked about it, hitting those milestones, 60, 65, the pride of three generations,” she said. “We can always, management-wise, put our understanding [of] how young people think…maybe put it more on a social platform.” She called the potential management change “a young twist” that would maintain La Taza de Oro with an increase of advertising and social media promotion.

Talk of the restaurant’s future and the rapid evolution of Chelsea still scares Marila Montalvo, though. The employees of La Taza de Oro have been with her family for decades, many making the business their life. According to Montalvo, a few have retired and promptly returned to the restaurant because “they knew nothing else.” The oldest employee, a waiter everyone simply refers to as “Rigo,” told the family he would die in the restaurant. “I don’t allow anybody to mess with him,” said Montalvo. “And you know, I get complaints…I don’t care. There are customers who come, and they want Rigo…”

Her daughter Alex laughed, “You’ll say ‘Rigo. How are you?’ and he’ll look at you and say, ‘What? Rice and Beans?’ That’s all he knows.”

Rigo, like many of the older staff at La Taza de Oro, are from Montalvo’s home city, Cabo Rojo. Their presence in the restaurant helps to maintain the vibe of classic eateries in that tropical city. As she watches them age, Montalvo admitted she worries.  “They’re very loyal,” she said trying to hold back her tears. “It makes me want to cry because I wish I could do more. My daughter and I play the lottery, and I tell them, if I win, I’ll split my winnings with the restaurant employees.”