It has been a few years since I had this idea about finding the best Cuban style “croquetas” (pronounced crow-keah-taas). What are croquetas? Well technically, they are originally from Spain, they are simply, put fritters. Typically, they are prepared with a béchamel base and with added meat that is then chilled and formed into cylindrical patties, which are coated in egg wash, breadcrumbs, and fried until crispy and golden on the outside.
In my Cuban household growing up in Mountainside, NJ, USA, these were only prepared for special occasions because they are time-consuming to make. My immediate family which consisted of my grandparents, my parents, myself and my five siblings would devour them so quickly that I often felt sorry for my Abuela Concha and my mom. They would spend the entire evening before any special occasion preparing them, knowing that as the most popular item on the menu, they would have to fight off the children who would try to swipe them before they made it to the dinner table.
Somehow, in the small Cape Cod home we lived in, they still managed to hide them from the kids. There were times my parents would have company, then like magic, croquetas would appear on a silver platter. At these events, we were not allowed near the festivities. For two simple reasons. One, so that the adults could have real conversations instead of always having us about. But we were still allowed nearby as long as we kept silent. Once we began interfering, we would be sent off to bed. The second, of course, that we may swipe the appetizers that were prepared for the guests, mainly the croquetas.
As the years progressed, there would be times we would just buy them in Elizabeth, NJ at Mara Bakery, a Cuban bake shop. I recall those visits like it was yesterday. That is where we would get “pasteles de guayaba” (guava pastry) and drink a malta (a sweet malt beverage) while we waited for our order to be boxed up. Sometimes, my dad would want to go early, so we could hang out and eat Cuban sandwiches and desert and then go home with the order.
The smells of the food and listening to all the Cubans chattering away are some of my fondest memories of my childhood.
Now in my later years, I happen to be married to a beautiful woman who grew up in Cuba. I never realized how Cuban I was until now. Growing up here, in the USA, you can say I am as American as apple pie, but my soul is distinctly Cuban as I have found out and have embraced in these recent years. The humor, the camaraderie and the sadness of a paradise lost are what unite us all outside of the island, and it is what has us praying and helping those still living under the dictatorship in current times.
Getting back to the point, Croquetas! This is one thing that is important to me and should be at every Cuban restaurant. Sadly, many Cuban restaurants don’t even know how to make them, and buy them made offsite. I have compiled a list of 12 random Cuban eateries that serve croquetas on or near Bergenline Avenue in Hudson County that I have tasted. I ordered only ham croquetas, first because they are my favorite and second so that they can be compared on the same scale.
Below is my list with a rating system from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. Sadly, I can not give any a 10.
- Las Chicas, Union City (9)
- Como en Tu Casa (9) (was Cuban now owned by Venezuelans, still caribeños)
- Las Americas, Union City (8.5)
- Rumba Cubana, Guttenberg (9)
- Las Palmas, West New York (8.5)
- Centro Latino, West New York (8)
- Gilberto’s, North Bergen (7.5)
- La Tinajita, West New York (7)
- Pio Pio, West New York (4) (possibly a recipe from the “Período especial”)
- Havana on the Hudson Cafe, West New York (1)**
- Cortaditos, Union City (1)**
- Artemisa Bakery (0)***
Please take note, I am only rating the Ham Croquetas. I am not rating the restaurant overall. For instance, toward the bottom of the list is Cortaditos, meanwhile I love the Café which is great, except for their croquetas which I pray someday soon they will discover another provider or recipe.
**by the way, the two starred I believe order the mix or croquetas from the same vendor as they have the same distinctly odd flavor, and it is not ham.
*** How Artemisa Bakery has the gall to sell that garbage they served me as croquetas is shocking. It was some kind of hollow breading, very odd.