Exactly one block east of my apartment is a subtle brick restaurant with turquoise trimmings, outdoor dining tables complete with table cloths and candles, and bowl-sized ladles that serve as door handles to the cozy cucina. A modest sign tucked behind a tree branch reveals this place as the one and only Cucharamama, which took me almost a whole year to pronounce until I heard someone else say it aloud (“Cuchar-a-mama”). I’ve heard snippets of reviews about this South American gem, via friends that have visited this “pricey but amazing” tapas bar and restaurant. “Great for an appetizer and drink” with a “cute atmosphere”, it’s been on my to-do list for years, but always got pushed to the bottom despite being literally the closest restaurant to my apartment. I’ve visited their BYOB sister restaurant, Zafra, across the street, and even bought coffee from their little latin marketplace Ultramarinos (which I often refer to as “the place with no name” due to the non-permanence of their store sign). But Cuchara, as I abbreviate it, has escaped me.
But very recently, local news was flurrying with the announcement that Cucharamama was named one of the Top 25 Restaurants of New Jersey by NJ Monthly. So as if the personal recommendations, convenient location, and appetizing menu didn’t persuade me, I suppose it took some statewide recognition to push me in the door.
As NJ Monthly writes:
Maricel Presilla went from best of times to worst of times last October. First her magnum opus, Gran Cocina Latina, was published. (The 900-page cookbook would win a 2013 James Beard Award to go with the one she took home last year as Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.) By the end of the month, her restaurants, Cucharamama and Zafra, and her Latin food store, Ultramarinos, were out of commission, flooded—like much of Hoboken—by Sandy. Miraculously, all three reopened in two weeks, thanks to tireless work by her employees (whom she paid), friends and family. Since opening in 2004, Cucharamama has shown that the earthy and the ethereal are inseparable in South American food, art and design. Through good times and now bad, that spirit has kept it vibrant and relevant.
So here is my take based on my recent visit.
I started off with a Mamapolitan, their twist on the classic cosmo (my favorite). Perfectly strong and not too sweet, it was a great choice even though their extensive wine list was appetizing.
I often say that you can judge a restaurant by its bread. Though not an entirely flawless grading system, if you were to judge Cucharamama by theirs, they would be hands-down number one in the state. Soft, warm, fluffy strips of bread sets the mood for the forthcoming meal. Paired with a sweet butter reminiscent of the hush puppies accessory in the South, this complimentary starter nearly melts in your mouth.
For the real meal, we ended up with an assortment of everything on the menu that jumped off the page, so we ended up with three courses of tapas. First up was Ensalada de Piña y Calabaza with Grilled Pineapple and Pumpkin Salad with Pumpkin Seeds and Cacao Nib Vinaigrette. Woah. This was real-deal chunks of pumpkin and pineapple which was a fruity heaven.
We paired this with Chicharrón de Pollo Novoandino, Peruvian-Style Crunchy Quinoa-Crusted Chicken Fingers, Chino-Latino Sauce. What more can a foodie ask for than a classic childhood favorite bred with the health food that is trending the nation? Crispy, delicious, perfect.
No South American meal is complete without a Tamal, so we had Tamal de Pipián Vallecaucano (“From Colombia’s Vallecauca Region–Cracked Corn Tamal Filled with a Potato and Peanut Hash, Bogota’s Creamy Cheese and Tomato Sauce”). This one got a 10 for presentation and a 10 for taste.
Our piece de resistance was Pizza de Zapallo, a pizza with Kabocha Squash and Red Onion Confit with Manchego Cheese. This was a very elegant version of my favorite pizza at our staple Italian restaurant uptown.
We also ordered two additional sides, Quinua Atamalada (Creamy Quinoa with Potato and Cheese) and Arroz con Queso Barranquillero (Colombian Rice with Queso Blanco). Yes, once it came out we realized we had ordered two grains. But we happily ate what we could fit into our stomachs and packed the rest up for an enjoyable lunch the next day. And this place still makes the little tinfoil handles for your leftovers … classic.
So to sum up this local favorite: This place is my taste – it has it all from the drinks to the decor to every item on the menu being packed with Latin love. And if your mouth isn’t watering yet, maybe you just can’t handle the heat.