It began like scenes from the movie classic Marty:
Fork: What do you feel like doing?
Iced Tea Spoon: I don’t know? What do you feel like doing?
Fork: So what do you feel like doing?
Iced Tea Spoon: I don’t know! What do you feel like doing?
And around and around we went. And then Fork remembered that one of the things on a list of silly things to do was to visit Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. For those of you unfamiliar, Carlo’s is the scene of the TLC hit reality show Cake Boss.
The line! Oh my! The line was down the street, around the corner, down that street! People in the alley hoping to get a glimpse of Buddy. Do you see all these people? All waiting to get in! We called and one of the sisters answered, we think it was Grace, and told us the wait was THREE HOURS, Buddy wasn’t there and if we came back after the Christmas/New Year holidays, and during the week, the place is empty!
Fortunately, Fork always has something on the tines. And that’s where Zafra came in. Zafra is an incredible Cuban restaurant in the heart of Hoboken. The restaurant is not big, but it is warm and friendly and inviting. The staff makes you feel as though you come there every day – especially our wonderful waiter Javier – who, by the way, positively gushed about the restaurant and the chef Maricel Presilla. Maricel sounds like an amazing woman – a doctor of medieval Spanish history, co-owner of restaurants Zafra and Cucharamama, and Ultramarinos, a Spanish market and cooking demo space. Let’s not forget the Miami Herald columns, cookbooks and recent trip to the White House to cook for the first family. And while Maricel makes magic in the kitchen, her partner Clara Chaumont, makes sure everyone in the dining rooms are happy and comfortable!
Well, enough about the owners! We sat at a lovely table for 2. The tables are all covered in festive oil cloth. The walls lined with great paintings – which it turns out were painted by Maricel’s father. They have iced tea, as well as a full bar, and some very interesting latin inspired non-alcoholic drinks. The iced tea comes in huge glasses, with huge wedges of lime, and springs of fresh mint. The tea is delicious. The tea is NOT bottomless, and the iced tea is $4 a glass. $4 a glass! Really!? So 4 of them is $16. And the words come out of Fork’s tiny tines again – do you know how much iced tea can be made for $16! But this little iced tea inconvenience should not discourage you from enjoying Zafra, and enjoy it you will.
We wanted everything on the menu. We kept looking and pointing, ‘Oh, look at that! I want that!’ We were able to narrow it down to three Little Latin Dishes. Everything is plated beautifully. A true understanding of beautiful food being as important as great taste. Ugly food has to be seriously good to makeup for that short coming.
While we were sipping our ‘golden’ iced tea and drooling over the menu, Javier brought over a basket filled with warm, crispy cuban bread. We just wanted to dive in, but with the wonders of the menu ahead of us, we refrained – a little.
Iced Tea Spoon eyed the Chorizo Encebollado. What arrived were thin slices of chorizo, pan fried and crispy at the edges. For Fork that could have been enough, but the chorizo was smothered in golden, slightly caramelized, sautéed onions. There was a scattering of green olives – kudos for them being pitted green olives. The chorizo was mild with just the slightest bit of a heat background, we add in the sweetness of the caramelized onions, and the briny green olives and you have happiness on a fork. And to just add that bit of polish, there were thin, freshly fried plantain chips for a garnish – beats the heck out of parsley any day!
Fork chose the Empanadillas con Pebre. Crispy empanadas filled with picadillo (which is one of Fork’s favorite childhood dishes). The dough was perfectly crisp and tender. Empanadas have a tendency to be doughy and not quite cooked through and that just ruins the entire thing. What made them even better was how beautifully they were closed. They were almost too pretty to eat – ALMOST! To go along with the empanadas was a Spicy Chilean cilantro sauce. A little spice, a little vinegary, a lot perfect. Absolutely perfect for dipping the empanadas. The sauce very much resembled a chimichurri. Now, we had a little dilemma, two empanadas and a bowl full of delicious sauce. See, there’s the reason for saving the bread! Perfect foil for the dipping sauce.
The third little plate was Papa Rellena. This was a Cuban take on an Italian rice ball – but, instead of rice, there’s fluffy, light, dense (yes, both at the same time) mashed potatoes – could anything with mashed potatoes possibly be bad? The inside was filled with a generous amount of beef hash. The entire thing was about baseball sized and more than enough for Fork and Iced Tea Spoon to share. On the side of the Rellena was an Ecuadorian aji relish. I don’t think what ended up on our plate was the relish. It was raw sliced red onions that had quite a bite to them. There was a little cilantro mixed in, but nothing that resembled a relish, and certainly what people know as an aji relish – especially since aji are peppers and an aji relish is peppers, vinegar, oil, garlic. Isn’t it terrible when the kitchen thinks diners are dopey? Raw onions do not equate to aji relish, not no way, not no how. But the rellena was so good, who really cared about the insignificant garnish which was left on the plate because it didn’t go with the rellena? Not this Fork.
Wait, there’s more! Hard to believe, right?
Iced Tea Spoon ordered the Articuchos. Skewers of moist, tender chicken in a Peruvian marinade before grilling. Four huge skewers. Very moist, especially considering how thinly cut the chicken was. The marinade was amazing. Everything we had throughout this adventure was so perfectly seasoned, very flavorful with a little burst of heat as it hit the back of your palate. Nothing scorching, just enough to make you sit up and smile. Along with the chicken skewers was a half of a roasted sweet potato. I liked the cut width-wise as opposed to lengthwise. It gave the dish a very rustic look. There were also amazing white beans and rice. The white beans were so creamy against the slightly spicy liquid. Just perfect.
Fork ordered Ropa Vieja. Loosely translated old clothes or ripped clothes. This is a classic Cuban dish. Shredded beef and peppers that were braised in a red wine sauce. The beef just melted in your mouth. The Ropa Vieja was served with black beans and rice. Fantastic black beans. You know how black beans that have been sitting around have a tendency to get muddy? Not these. These were fresh and fabulously seasoned and so perfect with the beef. And, again, a generous portion of each. So much attention is paid to detail, every dish so beautifully plated, even the rice.
And what would a Cuban meal be without a plantain of some sort. But how to decide between tostones or maduros. Simple, sweet beats savory – especially when the rest of your meal has a bit of spice to it. Perfectly ripe, caramelized on the outside, sweet and tender on the inside. But there is no more room! Two very full pieces of cutlery sadly looking at a lot of leftover food that was happily taken home.
The rule is, there is always room for dessert. It is one of the tenets of the Fork, Knife & Spoon philosophy. Especially when Javier suggested the Panqueques de Dulce de Leche. How can a little crepe filled with warm, gooey dulce de leche be filling? Not possible. They were perfect. Two panqueques – one for Iced Tea Spoon and one for Fork. Very light, rolled as opposed to folded, and filled with warm dulce de leche. It was the perfect little sweet necessary after a big, heavy, spicy meal.
This place is truly amazing. The owners are amazing. The food is amazing. If you are in the Hoboken area definitely go here. Heck, if you aren’t in the Hoboken area go here. The restaurant is 5 minutes outside the Lincoln or Holland Tunnel.
Maricel Presilla is the author of The New Taste of Chocolate, delving into the history and diversity of cacao, with wonderful recipes too; as well as other books about Latin history and culture.