HOBOKEN- 301 Willow Street, Hoboken, NJ
Exiting the terminal you ascend onto a beautiful street from a seemingly distant era. Your eye is drawn to the cobblestone and fading railroad steel and looking up you notice the age-old Edwards Hotel. On the corner to your right a loud comiserating after-work crowd forms at the bar to drown the stress of the day in bar food and Bud Light. You are accompanied by droves of 20 and 30-somethings in professional attire as you walk from Hudson Place to Newark St. and you join them in dodging families walking four-across on the sidewalk, each one carrying a cupcake and a canoli from Carlo’s Bakery. Finally, you reach Washington street; a vista of sports bars, fast-casual restaurants, small retailers, and thousands of pedestrians.
Congratulations- you’re in Hoboken.
There is a definite charm to this tiny Manhattan outpost, sometimes known as “the sixth borough” or “the mile square city”. Several parks and a one and a half mile waterfront promenade on the east side of the city afford, in my opinion, the best view one can get of the New York City skyline. Most if not all of the streets have centuries-old buildings and zoning restrictions keep new construction to four or five stories tall in most parts of the city, giving it a village feel. The culinary scene is fairly homogenous and pedestrian, but along with the city, it is growing and become increasingly varied. Washington and Hudson Streets are home to most of the city’s eateries, however some of the best restaurants are on enchanting corners tucked in the residential streets to the west.
One of those places is Zafra- a tiny, 25 seat Cuban-Lat-Am restaurant located on the corner of 3rd St and Willow Avenue. Walking in, you are consumed by the color and energy in the restaurant. The small tables are outfitted in brightly colored cloths, and the walls are adorned with vibrant oil paintings by a Cuban artist and father of owner Maricel Presilla. Other subtle Latin American details are incorporated throughout the busy little restaurant giving it a truly authentic feel.
My girlfriend and I visited on a Saturday night, and decided to forgo the 20 minute wait for a table by sitting at the bar (due to the size of the place, expect this on a weekend). Off the bat, we noticed that although the service and back of the house were extremely busy, they were all laughing, and having a great time. As a result, we found ourselves smiling before we tasted anything. On to the food…
Like many of Hoboken’s small restaurants, Zafra does not have a liquor license, but they allow you to bring your own booze. Bring rum and they will make you a killer Mojito, bring a bottle of wine and they will make Sangria. We came in with a bottle of red wine and watched the “bartender” add a battery of ingredients, including 4 or 5 different types of fresh fruit, furiously mix it all together, and then serve us, in a giant pitcher with an old wooden spoon, perhaps the best Sangria I have ever had in my life. As we sipped from our giant wine glasses, we sorted through an extensive menu of small tapas-like plates, tamales, sandwiches, and entrees.
To start, we decided on the ham croquettes- salty little fried potato balls filled with juicy serrano ham, served with a delicious spicy dipping sauce. In lieu of another appetzer, we decided to request a second basket of the complimentary toasted, pressed and buttered Cuban Bread. It was so basic, so expected, but something about it was enthralling; we couldn’t stop eating it.
We guzzled Sangria and picked out chunks of fruit as we anxiously awaited our entrees. For Kate, it was the Pollo con Mole Oaxaqueño- a traditional chicken dish, with thick mole sauce, rice, and tortillas. For me, it was the Churrasco con Chimichurri- Aregentinian Style skirt steak served with chimichurri sauce. Both entree’s were satisfying. The chicken was moist with strong, but not overwhelming flavor from the mole. The steak, melt-in-your-mouth-tender, grilled to a perfect medium rare, served with a solid chimichurri. We ate off of eachothers plates, and contemplated asking for another basket of the pan cubano to take care of some of the dishwasher’s work.
Overall: The atmosphere of a restaurant and the attitude of it’s employees can make any dining experience enjoyable. Put authentic, well-prepared food on the plates, and you’ve got a winner. Zafra delivered on all of the above. Take a trip out to Hoboken, and stroll through the backstreets to this busy corner restaurant and enjoy a little slice of latin america.
On your way, stop at Sparrow Wine and Liquors on Washington St. and pick up a cheap, young bottle of red for the Sangria!