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Hoboken’s Cucharamama is a South American restaurant that sits about five blocks west of lower Washington Street. It is one of the most celebrated restaurants in town by both regular people who eat food and professional critics alike. Ask anyone what their favorite Hoboken spots are, and this place will likely be on their list.
We probably would have made it into Cucharamama years ago, but we could never get a damn table. During peak hours, the waits can be unbearable. Fortunately, they now let parties call in to get on the list in advance, but you’ll still probably have to kill a few hours before you actually get to sit down. We took advantage of the new system recently and made the trip, followed by a few other visits to solidify our opinion.
Cucharamama is a decent restaurant. Unfortunately, it comes with a few problems. First of all, the menu is pretty daunting. It is absolutely enormous. We’re talking Cheesecake Factory huge (we counted 70+ food items). We also find that the menu tends to over-hype its dishes with the descriptions, making it sound like the ingredients came from all over the world, when in reality they probably came from the Shoprite down the street. Secondly, it is pretty pricey for Hoboken, which normally wouldn’t be an issue, if it weren’t for our third, and biggest problem (and honestly, the only real problem): Cucharamama is wildly inconsistent. After a couple of visits, we still can’t put our collective finger on this place because it’s been so all over the map. Some dishes, like the Tamal de Maíz Tierno with Tocino, have been absolutely incredible. Others, like the Pimientos de Piquillo Rellenos, have been flat out terrible. Every thing that has touched our table at this place has seemed to follow this good extreme/bad extreme pattern. Major bummer. Especially for a restaurant this popular.
The good news is, Cucharamama is definitely authentic, has a pretty decent vibe with a big wood burning oven right in the middle of the space, and serves up some tasty drinks that get you drunk real quick. When it’s good, its excellent, but the bottom line is, when you decide to wait two hours for a table, you’re going to want to know what you’re getting yourself into. And with Cucharamama, you simply don’t. So unless you’re in the mood for an up-and-down kind of evening, you’re better off eating somewhere else. Or watching the Bachelor or something.
Pulpo al Olivo
Octopus can be tricky to get right, and too often eating it is like chewing on the bottom of a running sneaker. This, however, is octopus done well. It’s cooked in a “Peruvian Black Olive and Panca Pepper Sauce” and came highly recommended from our server. It’s tender, juicy, and has nice flavor from the olive and pepper. You want it on your table.
Pimientos de Piquillo Rellenos de Calabaza y Queso Manchego
This on the other hand, was a total fail. Also highly recommended, these peppers filled with Caribbean pumpkin (so…a mango?) and Manchego cheese were straight up cold and tasted like they had been pulled out of the refrigerator from the night before. Also, all of the individual ingredients seemed to blend together into a single item, making for a couple of mushy red balls. Pass.
Tamal de Maíz Tierno with Tocino
You want this badly. Seriously. Out of all of our meals here, this is easily the best thing we tried, and tastes like it could have come out of a Tim Love restaurant. The tamal itself is super fresh, and loaded with delicious corn flavor. The slab bacon that comes with it is also marinated in something awesome. That’s really all you need to know.
Empanadas de Carne
Not bad. Not amazing. Basic beef empanandas with an average chimichurri sauce on the side (La Isla’s chimichurri destroys this one). It won’t kill you to order some of these, but you’re not missing much if you decide to skip them for another order of the Tamal.
Ceviche de Camarones de Jipijapa
This is a roast pork ceviche, and there was no way we weren’t ordering something like that. The pork was pleasantly tender, and the yuca both looked and tasted like a stick of butter.
Salmón con Salsa Romesco y Papas Doradas
A salmon dish that surprised us a lot. We thought this would come out dry and overcooked from Cucharamama’s signature wood-burning oven – but it was just the opposite. Perfect and full of flavor.
Pechuga de Pato a la Parrilla
Not good. This entree was also highly recommended. The duck came over an “Aromatic Tamarillo Sauce,” but we found it to be aroma-less and completely overcooked. It also had no flavor, just like the creamy quinoa that came with it on the side.
Pechuga de Pollo Asado al Horno de Leña en Salsa de Calabaza y Mango con Boronía
Wait what? Can we summarize a bit with these menu descriptions? This is basically a chicken dish, but it actually happens to be a special one. It comes in a pumpkin and mango sauce, and the outside of the chicken is crispy and seasoned perfectly. We picked this one all the way to the bones.
This is basically your standard South American skirt steak. It’s solid, but they certainly aren’t breaking any new ground here. It does come with a couple of pig things on the side (sausage and pork cracklings), which we consumed quickly.
Costillas de Res en Salsa de Asado Negro Venezolana
This one had Immaculate Infatuation written all over it: “Braised Short Ribs in a Red Wine Sauce and Brown Loaf Sugar and Cacao, Stir Fried Quinoa and Swiss Chard.” Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the name. Like the duck, the short ribs were totally dried out, and were lacking any kind of meaningful flavor. Also, it seems like they just change the names of things on the menu, because we’re pretty sure this is the same quinoa that came with the duck. And it still wasn’t good.