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Latin America, Plate by Plate

Fall 2017 latin american cuisine

Latin America, Plate by Plate

Empanadas. Ceviche. Tamales. Quesadillas…the list goes on, and whether it is spicy, salty, or sweet, we all have a favorite Latin specialty. How did this irresistible cuisine originate? The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas—the early occupants of what we refer to today as Latin America—helped shape the modern version of Latin cuisine. The cookery of these ancient civilizations revolved around maize (corn), and typically included squash, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and various tropical fruits. Even greater influences for today’s Latin food include European, African, and Middle Eastern cuisine, as the settlers who populated this vast region throughout the past century brought their culture, including their food, with them.

However, dependent upon the country, and even the regions of each country, there are many differences between popular dishes and cooking styles. For example, due to the various climates in the expansive country of Brazil, many nuances between regional cuisines exist, such as the common consumption of river fish in the north versus meats in the central part of the country. The Chilean coastline stretches over a whopping 2,600 miles, making seafood popular throughout the country, contrary to landlocked countries like Paraguay and Bolivia. Strong Italian influences in both Argentina and Uruguay make pizza and pasta everyday foods, which aren’t as common in most other Latin countries.
For all the differences in Latin cuisine, there are some commonalities, though. Due to the warm climate in most of Latin America, spice is popular, as it stimulates appetites that are suppressed by the heat. Potatoes, quinoa, beans, and tropical fruits—including avocado, pineapple, papaya, and guava—are all indigenous to many areas of Latin America, and are used plentifully. As far as beverages, coffee beans grow well in many climates, and are even a top export in some countries. Argentina and Chile are some of the world’s top wine producers, specifically known for the Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmenere varietals.

Food Culture Latin American - Azucar

Cuban cuisine blends several different cultural influences—in this case, Native American Taino food, Spanish, African, and Caribbean, and Azúcar Cuban Cuisine & Cigars in Closter {171 Schraalenburg Road, Closter; 201.660.7977; azucarcubancuisine.com} features Cuba’s traditional flavors to great effect. Azúcar’s authentic menu was designed by Executive Chef/Owner, Nick Vazquez, who employs the cooking techniques and skills he learned from his own mother on the restaurant menu. (It’s worth noting that several years ago Vasquez won the Food Network’s Throwdown! With Bobby Flay show, beating out Chef Flay with his Cuban sandwich. The celebrated El Cubano Grande with its roasted pork, sweet ham, swiss cheese, thinly sliced kosher pickles, and mayo still appears on Azúcar’s menu.)

Azúcar also imparts the traditional flavor of Cuban nightlife with its lively bar scene. Vasquez’s daughter Lauren doubles as general manager and head mixologist, overseeing the mix of Cuban-inspired cocktails, wine, and beer selection, including an impressive array of signature mojitos. The interior for both the main dining room and bar/lounge—designed to send diners on a “tropical getaway”—is decorated with many cultural Cuban items and flourishes. Live music and dancing take place on the weekends, while the private dining room is available for both family celebrations and corporate events alike.
How about a cigar to follow up your meal? Azúcar offers cigars from a variety of Central and Southern American countries. Just as you would enjoy your cigar in these countries, with the outdoor breeze on a leisurely evening, you can do so here. Azúcar recently opened a new patio over the summer, which is worth checking out.

Co-owner Fernando Lopez of Sabor Latin Bistro, in North Bergen {8809 River Road, North Bergen; 201.943.6366; saborlatinbistro.com}, likes focusing on Caribbean food (from where he and his co-owners hail) and other Latin American cuisine, as Executive Chef Alcides Mejia’s home country is El Salvador. “I’m Puerto Rican and my wife is Cuban,” says Lopez. “When designing the menu and interior of Sabor, we wanted to bring the flair from our countries. We wanted to make it hot. We try to share with guests our passion for life, energy, dancing, good music, and eating well. That was our goal.” We asked what dish guests should try to truly feel as if they were in Latin America, and Lopez had a hard time choosing just one. “The Chino Latino Ribs comes from the days in Cuba when there was a large influx of Chinese. Once settled, they took the Caribbean food and added their spices to it. We do a miso passion fruit guava glaze for the ribs, and people absolutely love it.”

When thinking about Latin food, we certainly can’t forget about Mexican. Colleen Grennan, Vice President of Operations for Blue Moon Café (with three locations in Bergen county), says “Mexican food has a unique great flavor that makes you come back for more. Mexican dishes can be prepared rather quickly and still have awesome flavor, which provides another segment to casual neighborhood family dining.” Some of the most popular menu items at Blue Moon Cafe include giant burritos, the fiesta salad, fajitas (also self-described as one of the most authentic items), and create-your-own quesadillas or burritos, which guests like because they can put a personal touch on their meal.
Next time you’d like to transport yourself south for some Latin flavor, we suggest trying out one of these great local restaurants.

More Latin Flavor

CARIBBEAN
Sabor {8809 River Road, North Bergen; 201.943.6366; saborlatinbistro.com}
With the owners hailing from Puerto Rico and Cuba, this restaurant aims to take your senses on vacation to the tropics. A seasonal menu and signature cocktails can be enjoyed indoors, or on the Spanish-style wrap around terrace. Dishes are served with sharing in mind, so bring your appetite and be ready to try various Latin specialties. Looking to dance off your meal? Visit on the weekend – a DJ spins beats on Fridays and Saturdays from 11pm-2am.

CUBAN
Azucar Cuban Cuisine & Cigars
{171 Schraalenburg Road, Closter; 201.660.7977; azucarcubancuisine.com}
Recently relocated from Jersey City to Closter, this Cuban restaurant is known for their wide range of cigars, specialty cocktails, and live music on the weekends.

Casual Habana {multiple locations; casualhabanacafe.com}
There are two Casual Habana locations to choose from for your next Cuban meal.

Las Palmas {6153 Bergenline Ave, West New York; 201.861.1400; laspalmasrestaurantnj.com}
Serving up authentic family-style Cuban food, this West New York restaurant features an open kitchen layout, with both casual and elegant dining options. Live music often entertains guests to complete the dining experience. Catering and various event space options are available.

Rumba Cubana {1807 45th Street, North Bergen; 201.553.9100; and 6909 J F Kennedy Blvd East, West New York; 201.854.4000; rumbacubanarestaurant.com}
Rumba, derived from the Spanish word meaning ‘to party’, is a term for a variety of musical rhythms and associated dances, and captures the essence of Caribbean culture. Rumba Cubana aims to create a warm and relaxed space, perfect for making memories. With self-described ‘real’ Cuban food, this is a great substitute for a trip to the actual country.

Son Cubano {40-4 Riverwalk Place, West New York; 201.399.2020; soncubanonj.com}
Dedicated to providing an atmosphere of the Cuban 1950’s era, often compared to that of the modern-day Hamptons, Son Cubano strives to recreate the elegance, flavors, and heritage of that time. With traditional Cuban fare, you’ll be able to take in New York City views along with live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Looking for post-work day relaxation? There’s a Monday through Thursday Happy Hour that isn’t just the usual two hours—try 4pm to close—now that’s muy bien!

COLOMBIAN
Noches de Colombia {multiple locations; nochesdecolombia.com}
Explore Colombian cuisine in one of several Northern New Jersey locations – the newest Noches de Colombia is in South Hackensack.

MEXICAN
Rosa Mexicano {60 Riverside Square Mall, Hackensack; 201.489.9100; rosamexicano.com}
Consider yourself lucky to have a location of this national chain in Northern New Jersey, along with several locations across the river.

Blue Moon Cafe {multiple locations; bluemoonmexicancafe.com}
Sangria Sunday, anyone? Check out this spot to ward off the ‘Sunday Scaries’ with specials on sangria pitchers.

Charrito’s (121 and 1024 Washington Street, Hoboken; 201.418.8600, 201.659.2800; 4900 Bergenline Ave, Union City; 201.863.0345; 974 JFK Boulevard East, Weehawken; 201.330.1130; loscharritos.com}
The multiple locations of Charrito’s make it easy to have a delicious Mexican meal in Hudson County. These bring-your-own-bottle restaurants conveniently allow you to have your favorite tequila or wine for house-made margaritas or sangria. The table-side guacamole allows you to choose your additions and spice level. We’ve had the opportunity to dine at both Hoboken locations, and the enchiladas were a personal favorite.

MEXICAN/PERUVIAN
El Sombrero {6900 Bergenline Ave, Guttenberg; 201.210.4001}
Combine Mexican and Peruvian cuisine at El Sombrero in Guttenberg.

Cafasso's Fairway Market - Fort Lee, NJ