You can find just about every South American cuisine somewhere in New Jersey. To try them all in one place, visit Cucharamama (“Mother spoon”) in Hoboken, where Cuban-born chef and historian Maricel Presilla offers both classic and reinterpreted versions of homestyle food from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and beyond.
From the creative cocktails, through small plates and main dishes, Cucharamama’s menu ranges far and wide across the South American continent. There are Peruvian options, including pisco drinks, anticuchos (marinated, grilled meats and organs), cebiche (lime-marinated fish), and Picante de Camarones (shrimp in spicy pepper sauce); Venezuelan arepas and black bean stew; Argentinian empanadas and chorizo; Ecuadorian Sango de Choclo y Camarones (creamy corn and shrimp stew); Bolivian Saice (spicy braised beef), and Colombian tamales and Bandejita Paisa (meat lovers dinner platter). I think I even saw a Brazilian cod fritter. Presilla not only serves every South American country’s cuisine, but mixes them up. There are interesting ethnic mashups like Humitas Chilenas (Chilean Fresh Corn Tamal with Venezuelan Ají de Leche (Milk and Cilantro Sauce)) and the Amazónico – a cocktail combining Guatemalan aguardiente and lulo juice from the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The hearty fare from the kitchen is Latin American comfort food. Our group loved the tamales with pork crackling and sweet corn, the pulpo (octopus) in pepper sauce, and the roast chicken out of the wood-burning oven. The Pastel de Choclo Chileno, a chicken and pork pot pie, is a heartwarming, slightly sweet casserole. The creamy quinoa with potato and cheese (Quinoa Atamalada) side dish is absolutely delicious. The desserts also looked good, but we were just too full to partake.
The narrow room is nicely decorated with the warm colors and artwork of South America. Our only complaint with Cucharamama is the service. The restaurant is very popular, and gets crowded in the small Hoboken space. The servers are friendly, but visibly rushed. There’s a bit of a Miami Beach in Jersey vibe – pretty people in a hip place. The hostess on the night we visited was particularly clueless, more focussed on looking good than on managing the front of the house. She was unable to recommend a nearby bar when we arrived early and there was no room to wait inside.
With a history PhD, it’s not surprising that Presilla – a James Beard award nominee and White House guest chef – is a culinary ambassador, bringing Latin American history and culture to new audiences through food. She has written a history of cacao, and in addition to Cucharamama, owns nearby Zafra, devoted to Cuban cuisine, and Ultramarinos, a Latin American food emporium. It would be hard to find a better example of the ethnic diversity that makes New Jersey, its people, and its food, world class.