During a recent weekday lunch rush at his restaurant on the Upper West Side, Richard Lam hurried around the dining room fielding orders from his regulars for dishes like wonton soup, General Tso’s chicken and fried rice.
Moments earlier, Mr. Lam recommended a plate of crispy chicharrones de pollo to a first-time customer who learned about the diner from a viral TikTok video posted in March.
La Dinastia, which opened in 1986, is at the center of an effort by restaurant owners to resuscitate New York City’s Chino Latino food, a slowly dying cuisine that features Chinese dishes like lo mein alongside Latino ones such as palomilla steak cooked in a wok, and mofongo covered in a beef gravy.
Mr. Lam’s struggle to stay relevant recently received a boost from an unlikely source: a series of widely viewed TikTok videos posted in the last few months from the account @RighteousEats that has brought scores of new customers to the diner. The videos have ranged from highlighting dishes on the menu to explaining the history of the restaurant in Spanish.
Now, Mr. Lam, 36, finds himself navigating a new frontier, with lines spilling out of the door of this neighborhood institution surrounded by trendy fast-casual spots. The moment marks his 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 build new clientele,” said Mr. Lam, whose father, Juan Lam, opened the restaurant shortly after he was born.
Unlike places serving fusion foods like Korean tacos or Mexican pizza, restaurants like La Dinastia split their menus to showcase separate Chinese and Latino dishes that can also be served together.
There are only a handful of Chino Latino restaurants left in New York today, but at one point, there were at least 20, said Lok Siu, a professor of Asian American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched Chinese Latinos. Many of the restaurants were opened by the descendants of Chinese immigrants who moved to countries like Cuba, Peru and Venezuela, beginning in the mid-1800s. They learned to cook local dishes and speak Spanish.
As political turmoil and economic instability uprooted people throughout Latin America, Chinese Latinos came to the United States, eventually settling in New York City. Chino Latino cuisine flourished here, Ms. Siu said, because immigrants found a community in two cultures. They opened restaurants in the late 1960s to serve working class Latinos, especially those who lived in the Upper West Side. Over time, as neighborhoods gentrified and the population of Chinese Latinos dwindled, so did the restaurants.
“These are the last remnants of what remains from this cultural phenomena,” Ms. Liu said about the restaurants. “There’s nothing else that marks their long existence.”
That disappearing history is honored at Marco Britti’s restaurant Calle Dao, named after Calle Cuchillo, the last remaining street of the Chinatown in Cuba’s capital. It opened in 2014, and he took a fusion cooking approach with Chinese and Cuban ingredients to make dishes like fried rice with roasted pork and chorizo, and ropa vieja served with noodles and a Sichuan soy glaze.
In the dining room, an enlarged image of the Cuban newspaper Kwong Wah Po — printed in Spanish and Chinese — hangs on the wall.
“It’s kind of the birth certificate of Calle Dao,” 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 two traditional Chino Latino restaurants, La Dinastia and Flor de Mayo, which opened in 1977, have largely kept the food and service as it was when their families began.
Though both restaurants operate separately, they share a common history. Phillip Chu and William Cho immigrated to Peru in the late 1960s from Hong Kong and met Juan Lam. The trio moved to New York City soon after and took over a restaurant in 1977, forming Flor de Mayo together with an additional partner. In 1985, when the lease ended, the partners split; Mr. Lam opened La Dinastia where there was formerly a Cuban restaurant, and Flor de Mayo relocated to a new space on Broadway. The current owners remain good friends.
Both restaurants have experimented with updated dishes, like a green sauce made with cilantro and avocado that pairs well with chicharrones de pollo at La Dinastia, and yuca balls stuffed with sausage, deep fried and served with a spicy sauce at Flor de Mayo.
Last month, Brandon Marquez, of Midtown East, first dined at La Dinastia, and soon after saw a TikTok video by Righteous Eats about the restaurant.
“It kind of reminds me of home,” Mr. Marquez, 24, who is half Filipino and Salvadoran, said about the restaurant, “especially when I saw the TikTok and all the Asian people speaking in Spanish.”
Despite the new publicity, the biggest challenge these restaurants face is staffing. All of the cooks at La Dinastia’s kitchen are Chinese and have learned to make Cuban dishes over time. Many original cooks and waiters retired during the pandemic. Michael Lan, an owner at La Dinastia who has worked there for decades and is knowledge about the kitchen, is planning his own exit.
“I’ll be there for him,” Mr. Lan, 64, said about the younger Mr. Lam. “I’m trying to hand him the baton. He’s really pushing it, and he will get there when I finally decide to hang up my shoes.”
At Flor de Mayo, inexperienced cooks start off making dishes like lo mein and fried rice, and learn to serve food like lomo saltado from the chefs that have worked there for close to 30 years. “But they’re getting old,” said Marvin Chu, 40, an owner who operates the restaurant’s three locations with his brother and great-uncle. “Our menu has over 100 types of cooking. For someone that’s new coming in and looking, they get scared.”
This variety of food has always interested Chris Sileo, 55, of the Upper West Side. About once a month, he comes to La Dinastia with friends from Hell’s Kitchen and Sparta, N.J. One, Steven Grillo, 50, recognized Mr. Lan from a Facebook video.
Regulars like Mr. Sileo have had a more difficult time eating at the restaurant lately because of long lines, though Mr. Lam, an owner, said he will hold a table if frequent patrons call ahead. Mr. Sileo said he was happy to see the boost from social media and new customers.
“You have to keep it growing,” he said. “But they always have room for us.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.