Croquetas!! -UPDATED LIST

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.

  1. Las Chicas, Union City (9)
  2. Como en Tu Casa (9) (was Cuban now owned by Venezuelans, still caribeños)
  3. Las Americas, Union City (8.5)
  4. Rumba Cubana, Guttenberg (9)
  5. Las Palmas, West New York (8.5)
  6. Centro Latino, West New York (8)
  7. Gilberto’s, North Bergen (7.5)
  8. La Tinajita, West New York (7)
  9. Pio Pio, West New York (4) (possibly a recipe from the “Período especial”)
  10. Havana on the Hudson Cafe, West New York (1)**
  11. Cortaditos, Union City (1)**
  12. 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.

The Story of the Three Belts

The Story of the Three Belts 

This story begins a little more than a year ago when I was buying cheap belts. I had bought a few belts that looked nice and were inexpensive. In price, they ranged from $15 to $25 at the department stores. One was reversible of man-made leather and the other was supposed to have been made of leather, but I am not confident that it was, but it  had a nice buckle that had a little give and spin action which made it feel like a comfortable fit. The one thing they both had in common, they were made in China.

Since I wear a belt every day, they got good use. One, I wore with my dress slacks the other I wore with my jeans and in more casual settings.  A few months went by, and they already began to look worn which was disappointing, but I continued to wear them, of course. Then what I should have known would be coming, happened. The leather on the reversible broke at the buckle. This most likely caused by my increase in weight. But I always go up and down in weight, so the product has to be able to withstand pressure at least to some extent. I began to wear the second belt daily and within a few weeks the buckle on this belt broke. It was at this point I decided that enough is enough. I am going to bite the bullet and buy top quality belts. This to me means buying Made in the USA. 

The last time I had bought an expensive belt it had lasted me at least five years, that belt was made of 100% natural leather. The only reason I stopped using it was that it was looking really beat up. It never broke,  I just decided to donate it to Good Will with other clothing. Recalling this experience I went on a mission to find quality again.

I went online instead of going to the store. I searched for belts made in the USA and settled on three different brands. The first, the GRIP6 Web belt is of a simple design but made of strong man-made material this product cost $30 on Amazon. The second is the Groove Belt brand which is also of exceptionally strong man-made material and a much more complex buckle than the first (PLEASE DISCLOSURE BELOW). This one cost around $60, not cheap. Then finally I bought a 100% made in the USA leather belt classic design by Bullhide Belts company. This cost about $65 because I bought the double layered version casual design that, I believe, can also double as a dress belt. There was a version which was less expensive and not as thick, but I wanted a rugged belt to last.

I received all three belts within seven days. I have been using them regularly and that is why I am writing this review. I was going to write this several weeks ago. Honestly, if I had, I would have had to retract my original thoughts. Sometimes a little procrastination does come in handy!

***** I recently found out that the Groove Belt is manufactured in China and assembled in the USA. this means I strike them from being Made in the USA.*******

Simple and nice

Here comes the big reveal the most inexpensive of the three is an excellent buy. It’s big positives in my book is number one it’s inexpensive. The second, it is simplistic, easy to slide through your belt hoops, and it is effortless to adjust and readjust to your size. The buckle is metal and durable and super cool,  and interchangeable. This makes it exciting because you can order different color buckles, and you can even get some with images. I don’t know how well these belts resist wear and tear but by the quality of the workmanship of the one I have I would not hesitate to buy more buckles. The only downside of the product is the material does take on the shape of the user, which of course is the same thing that happens with leather belts. One other point I can add is that the look is not that nice with dress slacks opposed to hang out clothes such as jeans and khakis which they go great with.

Made for Star Trek?

The second, is the one where I was about to write a very erroneous review. The Groove belt, is a little more difficult to adjust and so to me at first this was a turnoff. The second issue I had right away was that it was a little more difficult to slip through the pant loops. In comparison to the GRIP6, I was disappointed. Then I decided to wear it regularly to get a better feel of its value. It was after a week of wearing it that I realized its true worth. The magnetic buckle is a breeze to engage and disengage. The belt itself is made of a miraculous material that does not take the form of your body but instead has enough stretch to it that it snaps back and looks unfazed after many uses. Hence, this to me was a major plus, and now I have begun to wear this belt almost exclusively.

Why am I wearing the Groove Belt so much? Well, remember I first complained about the process of adjustment. Yes, it is not as easy as either the GRIP6 or the Bullhide belt, but it has one major advantage. Once I adjust it the first time, I have not had to adjust it again. I go up and down 5 pounds in weight as if I am on a see-saw. With the other two belts I have to adjust the belt but with the Groove Belt, I haven’t had to do it yet. I like that and it still looks like new. However the belt buckle itself is showing some wear in terms of the color getting nicked off. To me, this is not of tantamount importance. After a few more months I will return to this review and give an update.

I Love Leather!

Then finally, the review of the Bullhide 100% leather belt. Well, for $5 more than the Groove Belt, I got a super strong hand made leather belt. It is the classic design and just like the wheel, it is difficult to top something of such quality and excellence. The feel, the smell, the look and the ease of use puts this on the top of the list. Additionally this brand is first in its class, it is like wearing a Rolex around my waist. I love this belt and the company offers many options.  To keep the leather looking beautiful it is best not to give it too much punishment. I can tell you I am certain that there are people that work with their hands that would prefer this belt for its strength and reliability whose least concern is appearance.

Now comes the summary. I am happy with all three of the belts, and I am proud to say they are 100% Made in the USA. All three belts are meant to last. The GRIP6 winds on cost, if money is an issue this belt beats any of the cheap Chinese made belts. I bet that it will last for many years, and you can change buckles just for fun and that is just one of many options.

The Groove Belt is also an excellent product. I was at a conference the other day and met a colleague  who was also wearing one. He has also sung its praises. It cost more than the GRIP6 because it is of a unique material that stretches, and the buckle is a heavy duty magnetic design. This is now my everyday belt that will wear for most occasions. Kudos to the manufacturers for an excellent product! $60 still feels expensive for something that is not leather, yet the design has sold me on that this truly is a real value and will last.

The Bullhide belt is excellent, and I love leather belts, as I have already said.  I recommend you watch their video on how they are made. The company is made up of true artisans. I will be using this belt with dress slacks though the design I purchased is not for that purpose. My reason is that when you have a product that is of such high quality and has that obvious natural beauty you can’t recreate, it becomes something special. Hence, for special occasions it is!

Bottom line, top quality all around on these three belts, which means I will not be buying another belt for at least five years. All three manufacturers have other styles than those I have linked to from my purchased items. I also believe these products would make a great gift for someone in your life.

I would like to add, I am happy I bought three different belts that are all good. It gives me flexibility in my own personal expression and style. I am typically a very practical man and this sounds weird coming from me. But, hey, I guess I am getting more artistic in my mature years.