At first glance, Randy Klein and Alex Skolnick appear to be odd partners. Pianist/keyboardist Klein has a deep R&B and musical-theater background; guitarist Skolnick made his name in the thrash-metal band Testament. But over the past few years, a shared love of jazz brought them together, and they’ve been playing regularly as a duo. One of the standout songs in their repertoire is “Casa China,” a pre-existing Klein composition with a winsome melody and a powerful vamp. Its title was inspired by a late-20th-century New York City phenomenon: the proliferation of inexpensive restaurants offering both Chinese and various Latino foods (Cuban, Spanish, Mexican, Peruvian). Staffed primarily by Chinese workers, they differed from today’s Asian-fusion establishments in that the Chinese and Latino dishes coexisted on the menu but were never combined—unless you put them together yourself.
“Casa China” doesn’t refer to any particular restaurant; Klein was actually thinking of a small group of Cuban-Chinese places on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that he frequented regularly beginning in the 1970s. Many of them have since closed, but Klein doesn’t want them to be forgotten. “I miss them,” he says. “They added personality to the neighborhood. It’s sad to see that part of New York culture disappearing. Particularly on the Upper West Side it’s just become, you know, really rich people.”
Klein chose “Casa China” for Skolnick simply because he thought they would sound good playing it together. That its title and what it represents—a collision of two seemingly contrasting styles—might also reflect their musical relationship didn’t occur to him. “I always knew that we came from two different places,” he acknowledges. “But I never thought of it in respect to these restaurants. And it’s exactly right.” Skolnick agrees: “Yeah, that’s true, it’s a parallel. What a concept!”
In the following exchange, Klein and Skolnick discuss the appeal of Cuban-Chinese food.
RANDY KLEIN: When I moved to the Upper West Side in the late ’70s, there were many of these restaurants. And I’ve done some research on where that came from. In Cuba, they were bringing in Chinese people to work in the sugar fields, and they [discovered] similarities in food type, rice being one of the big joining factors. Also, the Chinese and Cubans both had black bean sauce, and that’s part of where the brown sauce came from for egg foo young. So you go into one of these restaurants and on one side of the menu you see paella with plantains, and then on the other side you’re seeing lo mein and egg rolls. And you could order chow mein with a side order of plantains.
ALEX SKOLNICK: I remember these places. I moved here around 2000 and they were all over, but I don’t see them as much anymore.
KLEIN: There’s one left on 72nd called the Princess, and my favorite, Flor de Mayo, is still right up the street from me. One of the great ones, Unica Caridad on 78th and Broadway, unfortunately just went out of business. It’s not what you’d call the highest cuisine in the world, but it’s cheap, it’s filling, it’s good.
SKOLNICK: So what would you order, Randy? Chinese or Cuban?
KLEIN: Well, what I used to order, before my doctor told me I should never eat it again, was egg foo young.
SKOLNICK: Yeah. Super-fried.
KLEIN: Egg foo young is … I dream about it. [Laughter] And I can’t eat it. It’s eggs, in oil, fried, and then you put a brown sauce over it.
SKOLNICK: It’s pretty much everything bad for you. Everything the FDA says to cut down on.
KLEIN: In terms of the “Spanish” side, I always ordered the same thing: shrimp with garlic sauce, which came with yellow rice and sweet plantains.
SKOLNICK: Mmm, that sounds great.
KLEIN: Yeah, but it’s also not great for me anymore, you know? Still, if somebody asks me, “For the last meal of your life, what do you want to eat?” [Imitates dying croak] “EGG FOO YOUNG!” [Laughter]
Artist’s Choice: Alex Skolnick on Jazz & World Music
Composer & Musician Randy Klein Awarded Simons Fellowship Originally Published