The recent death of Fidel Castro and reports of spontaneous celebrations prompted three friends and I to undertake a weekend tour through the area. Over a long afternoon, we surveyed clusters of Cuban businesses — including at least 20 restaurants, along with handful of haberdasheries, souvenir stalls, bodegas, bakeries, hardware stores, small factories, and an indoor market, where the only political statement we found was a small piece of embroidered fabric depicting Che Guevara — reminding us that the embroidery industry was one of the things that first attracted Cubans here in the 1940s.
More recently, waves of Colombian, Dominican, and Ecuadorian immigrants have also swelled the streets, though Cubans still constitute a major presence. Indeed, we encountered a half-dozen places boasting that they made the best Cuban sandwich in town — and it was immediately apparent that Havana on the Hudson is full of these sandwiches, even though they were probably invented, not in Havana, but in Tampa nearly a century ago to feed expatriate Cuban cigar makers.
Our first stop moving from south to north was on Bergenline Avenue at 33rd Street in Union City, where La Churreria N2 Restaurant occupies a prominent corner, heralded with red-lettered signs. The place is massive, with an L-shaped carryout counter where garlic-marinated pork roast is dispensed by the pound, along with empanadas and freshly fried churros. Deeper inside find a pair of dining rooms with dozens of tables covered with deep green tablecloths, underneath lots of hanging foliage. The interior seems like a throwback to the 60s.
We ate way too much at that first stop, because everything was so delicious. Highlights included a bowl of tamal en cazuela — a yellow corn porridge dotted with bits of pork fat — and a plate of roast pork topped with lightly fried onions, served with rice and black beans. Our first Cuban sandwich of the day was compact and oozing white cheese, layered with boiled ham, sliced pork, and pickles. It came spread with mustard, when we had expected mayo. One of the signs outside touted pan con bistec, a sandwich that turned out to be a neighborhood signature. It contained a nice piece of steak grilled medium rare, plus lots of lettuce and tomatoes.
We washed our meal down with batidas (fruit-laced milkshakes) and then departed La Churreria and proceeded north on foot. The narrow sidewalks were hopelessly crowded with shoppers at midday, and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper as we darted into Las Cubanitas Bake Shop to survey the pastries, including flaky pasteles de guayaba and dulce de leche cake rolls. Then, bypassing La Gran Via, a very nice-looking Cuban seafood restaurant, we headed to El Artesano. At the corner of 41st, and constituting another of the neighborhood’s anchors, it mounted a beguiling display of churros in the front window.
We bought a bag from a register on the long Formica lunch counter. Ten for a dollar, they were still warm and lightly dusted with granular sugar, more delicate than the Mexican version of the snack. We noted that stuffed churros were also available, with a choice of two fillings: dulce de leche and guava. Munching our way down the sidewalk, we hiked to our next objective, PCT.
It stands for Pan Con Todo ("Bread With Everything"), and offers the broadest selection of Cuban-style pressed sandwiches imaginable. ("Back in London, we call these panini," exclaimed one of my companions, an expat Kenyan.) PCT is one of the places that claims to make the best Cuban sandwiches in the region. Inside, one wall was covered with a mural of Havana’s Malecon, showing the sea wall and crumbling buildings in the reddish light of sunset. PCT makes 20 kinds of pressed sandwiches, including seven variations on the Cuban sandwich itself.
We picked the one called Marielito, commemorating the Mariel boatlift, which brought many Cubans to Miami and New Jersey in 1980. It contained ham, roast pork, melted cheese, pickles, and a couple of bonus ham croquettes, squished flat inside the sandwich. In addition, the pork came in big chunks rather than thin slices, making the sandwich particularly lush and delectable. We continued northward past the light rail station called Bergenline, which can get you near the border of Union City and West New York from the Hoboken Terminal, which is easily accessible from New York City via the PATH train.
Continuing northward, we noted an ancient Colombian corner bar with a stone facade called La Rumba Paisa, and proceeded on to Cuban Dos Amigos. Located on a side street and looking like an old-fashioned lunch counter with swirling stools, Dos Amigos concentrates on only one viand: pan con bistec, the steak sandwich mentioned earlier. But what a version it was! The flavorful beef was coarse-textured and sliced thick, the meat topped with raw onions, and the onions further topped with French fries that had been stuffed right into the sandwich!
We nearly swooned, it tasted so good, and one sandwich would have easily fed two people. Really, it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten this year, and I’d travel any distance to get another. Though we felt like the high point of our culinary tour had been reached, we retraced our steps back to the car, and took a driving tour of the area. The high point was a stop at the Weekhawken Water Tower, a brown stone edifice dating to 1883 inspired by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. It looked like something out of Harry Potter.
Our last stop was in Weehawken at La Tinajita, a lively place that bills itself as Pizzeria Cubana. What is a Cuban pizza? It turned out to be a doughy, deep-dish pie with mega amounts of cheese, some of which had been sprinkled between the edge of the crust and the pan, so a dark, crunchy lattice rings the pizza. Of the dozen topping choices, we picked the one featuring bell pepper strips in a variety of colors, which the waitress enthusiastically recommended. You can’t get a pie quite like it in New York. We finished off our meal — washed down with Mexican beer from the bodega across the street — with a variation on the Cubano called medianoche ("midnight").
"I don’t get the difference between this and the Cubano," said another of my companions, a novelist from New Zealand. "Well, this one was a little greasier and the bread was eggier," our Kenyan friend replied. And indeed he was right about his sandwich, said to be a favorite of night clubbers, both here and in Havana.
La Churreria N2 Restaurant (3300 Bergenline Ave, Union City, NJ, 201-866-1501)
Las Cubanitas Bake Shop (3704 Bergenline Ave, Union City, NJ, 201-866-8484)
La Gran Via (3905 Bergenline Ave, Union City, NJ, 201-864-4835)
El Artesano (4101 Bergenline Ave, Union City, NJ, 201-867-7341)
Pan Con Todo (4607 Bergenline Ave, Union City, NJ, 201-902-0048)
La Rumba Paisa (5100 Bergenline Ave, West New York, NJ, 201-348-4848)
Dos Amigos (5300 Bergenline Ave, West New York, NJ, 201-348-2255, entrance on 53rd Street)
La Tinajita (5517 Hudson Ave, West New York, NJ, 201-867-4566)