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COVER STORY – KUBA RESTAURANT

On the busy thoroughfare of Hudson Terrace in Fort Lee, a proud mother-daughter-team have brought the wholesome, piquant flavors of Cuba to the area by way of their new, aptly-named eatery, Kuba Restaurant {2139 Hudson Terrace, Fort Lee; 201.585.1601; kubarestaurant.com}. Owner Jillian Cartagena calls the name of the restaurant “a fun twist” on the beloved northern Caribbean country of Cuba, substituting the “C” for a “K” and pronounced KOO-BA, also capturing the dialect. This two-story dining establishment is the only eatery within this eastern Bergen County borough that offers a menu comprising nearly 100 percent authentic Cuban cuisine, with a pleasant Asian-inspired twist.

In contrast to neighboring restaurants with similar offerings, Cartagena and her mother Olga describe their restaurant as more Cuban-centric with a homey feel catering to all palates and walks of life, from bicyclists to local professionals and curious passersby, sans a dress code.

We wanted family-style, comfortable,” says Jillian. “We wanted to see our customers multiple times a week, so we really just wanted a different environment as opposed to a fancy night out, and this is more casual.”

The restaurant—which opened earlier this year, but is hosting an official grand opening ceremony in October—marks the Cartagena family’s second Cuban restaurant since the 2006 launch of their successful Las Palmas Restaurant, an eatery and nightclub on Bergenline Avenue in Hudson County’s West New York. Olga and her husband also own the market next door, where they source their fruits and vegetables for both restaurants. Olga says the idea for Kuba was Jillian’s vision. Jillian, who previously worked as a designer detailing shoes and bridal headpieces for almost a decade, says it was the “right time” to dive into the world of hospitality. “My parents want to retire soon, so this is something I’m taking on. I didn’t want to do Las Palmas, because that was their blood, sweat, and tears,” explains Jillian. “I did things this way because I wanted it to feel like mine.” While the transition hasn’t exactly been seamless, Jillian has proven herself in her new role with a positive attitude and a passion for success. “I have their knowledge, which makes me stronger than most, but it’s still been a learning curve,” she admits. “Everything’s been handled very differently, but it’s been fun.” Jillian had her work cut out for her, but her efforts are paying off. Kuba, previously a sports bar, earned her an award for “Top Renovated Restaurant” in the borough from the Fort Lee Chamber of Commerce.

Stepping inside Kuba, a full-service bar greets guests, backlit by 1950s-era graphics depicting black-and-white photos of Havana street scenes, Chevrolets, Cuban cigars, and the Cuban national flag. Painted a rusty red, the lounge exudes industrial vibes with exposed piping, blacktop tables, and steel chairs. In total, the dining room can comfortably seat about 60, plus another 13 patrons at the circular bar—the centerpiece of which is a wide flat screen television where sports fans can watch the game over a cold draft brew. Lead Bartender Luis Guevaza shakes up specialty cocktails (check out happy hour from 5-7pm daily) like a minty margarita made with a fresh-made ginger syrup and a tres leche shot imbibed after dinner. The lengthy list of libations also includes sake, a bevy of daily-made sangrías (ranging from coconut to blue Hawaiian to passion fruit and green apple), top shelf liquor, and myriad house wines. It’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of celebrities dining here either. In the lounge area, patrons can nosh on incredible Cuban sandwiches and brick-oven flatbread pizza while admiring a wall covered with memories from the Cartagenas’ many trips to the motherland. On a nice day, the glass doors open up, connecting the small outdoor patio adorned with hanging plants to create a heavenly breeze near the bar. Pleasant sounds of Cuban instrumentals fill the restaurant during the day creating a “light and airy” ambiance. A vibrant entertainment scene picks up on weekend evenings: find a live DJ on Friday nights and a keyboard-and-guitar duo crooning tunes ranging from Santana to disco fever on Saturday evenings. Also on the weekends, guests can find Jillian’s husband Michael helping out in the kitchen and mingling with guests in the same fashion as Jillian’s parents.

“Some people were singing along, some people were getting up out of their chairs dancing at the bar—it was nice,” recalls Jillian of a recent weekend.

For a more intimate dinner, patrons on dates can make their way upstairs to the chic, second-level dining room. The steps leading the way up are hand-painted by Fort Lee artist Sebastian Ferreira, and the wall touts a red neon script sign that reads “Viva Kuba,” modeled after Jillian’s father’s own penmanship. Within the upper dining room, designs by illustrious local designer Vanessa Deleone grab attention as booths line the windows Offering panoramic views of Hudson Terrace and are dressed in black leather and beige fabrics, partitioned off with authentic bamboo. Velvet upholstered seats with palm leaf motifs, baroque-style mirrors with gold accents, framed family portraits, and a fish decal on the ceiling complete the exquisite dining room. Sections can be closed off to accommodate private parties.

“I think people appreciate a nice place to sit where they can enjoy the music, but still be able to have a conversation,” explains Olga. “We want to get to know our customers.” Patrons can expect scratch-made dishes from Chef Jose Espinal, who is also a head chef at Las Palmas. “We decided to work together on this new restaurant to really incorporate the classic Cuban flavor that has made us who we are today,” says Jillian.

Born and raised in the Caribbean, Chef Espinal emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, bringing with him his flair for Latin and Caribbean cuisine. During his 15-year stint at Las Palmas, Espinal has helped craft classic Cuban dishes, from Paella to Arroz con Pollo, which Jillian calls “a flavor profile that will leave your mouth wanting more.”

At Kuba, the mouthwatering menu is inspired by both Chef Espinal’s experiences, as well as Olga’s family ties. Born in Matanzas, a little over
50 miles east of Havana, Olga emigrated with her family to the United States to Washington Heights, New York, when she was just five years old. Her grandmother, Edith Reyes, she says, was quite the cook.

“My father’s side of the family stayed in Cuba, while my mother’s side all came to the U.S.,” says Olga. “My grandmother was an outrageous cook.”

Olga recalls Edith’s Vaca Frita—a dish made with shredded beef and onion served with a helping of white rice, black beans, and sweet plantains—its aroma alone floods in memories.

“Our kids grew up eating those foods, and sometimes when they had playmates come over, they’d go, ‘What is that smell? What are you cooking?’” Olga says. “And then everyone would try it, and they would love it.”

Vaca Frita is one of several handed-down recipes offered on the three-course lunch and dinner menu at Kuba.

For starters, Kuba offers an array of appetizers from fried beef empanadas served with housemade sauce to Chicken Teriyaki Potstickers and spicy wings. Other palatable Cuban dishes include Tamal, a dish made with fresh ground corn, housemade Kuban Creole sauce cooked in a corn husk with crispy pork belly, and the famous Ropa Vieja Bao Buns prepared with shredded beef stewed in a tomato-based sauce. Another is Tostones Rellenos, savory plantain cups filled with garlic shrimp or shredded beef. For a lighter appetizer, gluten-free Crab Cakes will surely hit the spot.

Sandwiches, served with a side of plantain chips or fries, make up delicious lunch options. Traditional dishes include the Cuban Sandwich, pressed with layers of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, and dressed with a mustard aïoli and a pickle, as well as the hot Pastrami Sandwich. Other tasty sandwiches include The Frita Kubana: beef patty with Gouda cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a roll. Brick Oven Flatbread Pizza, which Jillian refers to as “Cuban pizza,” is another customer favorite. Diners can choose from Vaca Frita Pizza made with shredded beef, mozzarella, onions, sweet peppers, arugula, and chimichurri sauce to the Chorizo Pizza topped with Spanish sausage, chicharrón, Creole sauce, and mozzarella.

For those opting for a leaner lunch, the All-In-One Bowls are low-fat and sure to please. Diners can select from the spicy Kuban Veggie Bowl, which consists of sweet plantain, roasted root vegetables, avocados, and pico de gallo polished off with chipotle aïoli, or the colorful Tuna Poke Bowl made with cubed Yellowfin tuna, carrots, cucumbers, avocados, sesame sauce, and jalapeños topped with iceberg lettuce. Guests can customize their dish to their liking or order an antioxidant-friendly Quinoa Salad made with baby arugula, quinoa, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and roasted red pepper in balsamic vinaigrette; add chicken, shrimp, salmon, beef, or tofu for a nominal charge.

Of Kuba’s dozen-plus entrée offerings, the Caribbean Paella, made with saffron rice, lobster, tiger shrimp, clams, and mussels, is a must-try and a patron favorite, Jillian says. Other traditional Cuban dishes include the Arroz con Pollo made with boneless chicken, yellow rice, peas, and roasted red peppers, and the Salmon Oriental made with pan-seared salmon topped with a special housemade sweet ginger glaze, sesame seed, and sautéed vegetables. Patrons whose taste buds crave mild spice are encouraged to try the Rabo Encendido, with braised oxtail stewed in a spicy Kuban Creole sauce served with moro or black beans.

“It does really well,” Jillian says of the dish. “It’s delicious. It falls right off the bone.”

However hearty your mains, no Cuban feast is complete without dessert. The oh-so-moist Tres Leches is a delectable choice; the familiar sponge cake drenched in three kinds of milk is perhaps the best sweet treat here, but the Coconut Flan is another popular dessert. Chocolate fiends can indulge in the Chocolate Locura, a chocolate cake topped with chocolate ice cream and smothered in chocolate sauce. Enjoy your sweets with a hot, soothing cup of Café Con Leche or a Cortadito, espresso made with just a smidgen of milk, for the perfect finish.

While the menu continues to be tweaked, diners can look forward to seasonal specialty menus. Catering is also offered, as well as local delivery via GrubHub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash. As for Jillian’s budding culinary journey, things are going muy suave for this young restaurateur.

“We’re so proud of her,” says Olga. “She’s done an amazing job. She has this wonderful energy about her that’s great.” “I feel the good energy here,” Jillian says. “We all put our heart and soul into it. We’re just excited to be part of Fort Lee.”

By Lianna Albrizio
Photography by Greyly Boscan

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