Share. That's the best advice I can give as you decide what to order at Azucar in Edgewater, New Jersey, where size really does matter. The portions for most of the classic Cuban dishes are large enough to satisfy at least two large mammals. Take note that the appetizer named tipicos antojos cubanos ($24) is amusingly advertised as "Our famous 3-plate tower of typical Cuban tidbits for two." Just double the number of takers and you'll be able to eat an entrée -- or half of one.
Azucar is about the cigar-friendliest restaurant you can find close to Manhattan. It's right across the Hudson River and across River Road on the increasingly gentrified west bank of the waterway. There is a lounge on the second floor, which becomes a little crowded when too many people are waiting for a table on a cold night, but after dinner you can have a cigar and the alcoholic beverage that you choose to bring with you. And you can smoke at your table. Azucar, like many New Jersey restaurants, does not have a liquor license. BYOB is a plus in my opinion, except that I usually forget to take the bottle of wine I've set aside. The restaurant does sell cigars. Most are small brands, and the selection ranges in price from about $4 to $35 a stick. The latter is for a Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona with a red ribbon, packed in a glass tube.
On this night in June, as a diner lights up a corona gorda at a neighboring table -- something our guest from Manhattan finds odd given the smoking restrictions in New York -- we order the Mariquitas de Platanos (plantain chips; $5), the Yuca frita (like French fries, but made from cassava; $5) with mojo (a garlic dipping sauce), and Croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes; $5), my personal favorite with a squeeze of lime. For many humans, the three together would be a wonderful, if indulgent, meal. Among three or four diners, it's just the right amount to introduce each of the four basic Cuban food groups: grease, garlic, lime and salt.
For the purposes of this article, we followed the appetizers with three full entrées. The first is a classic Cuban dish, red snapper flash-fried whole ($26). The preparation leaves a crunchy exterior and a tender, steaming white flesh as you cut open the fish. The second entrée was a Bistec Empanizado Campestre, ($17) translated on the menu as "El Grande old country style pounded and seasoned breaded steak." It is a sirloin rendered thin by the hammer, breaded, then served on a cutting board, which the steak all but hides. It's just that big. (A third of ours left in a doggie bag.) The last main dish was what Azucar calls La Completa ("The Complete Experience"; $15). Most Cuban joints call it masitas de puerco, or morsels of pork. The "morsels," four in all and each the size of a Rubik's Cube, are deep-fried -- not breaded -- to form a thin, crunchy exterior, leaving the pork very tender on the inside. Accompanied by moros y christianos (black beans and white rice cooked together) and maduros (sweet plantains), you are getting the full treatment here. Perhaps only lechon asado (roast pork), also on the menu, is more traditional. Each entrée comes with two side dishes. Rice or rice and beans in some form is usually one of them. All but one of the seven complementos (sides) on the menu ignore the low-carb craze.
We brought our own bottle of wine, a 2001 Napa Valley Zinfandel from Dashe Vineyards. Zinfandel stands up to the strong flavors in Cuban food, but if you have seafood, you might want a lighter red or a relatively dry white. I prefer Spanish whites here, as they are almost tart and can cut through even the heavier recipes. For dessert, one Natilla Azucar (a creamy pudding with a blow-torched caramel top) was enough for everyone.
On previous occasions, and with more people at the table, we've sampled the Chorizo La Union ($7) appetizer, the Spanish sausage roasted in white wine with onions and peppers, and the Chicharron de Pollo ($6), described as "lime-marinated, deep-fried chicken morsels on the bone." The chicharron is another Cuban classic that illustrates how few parts of the chicken are ignored. Tasty, but muy salty in most places.
This is where I point out that the refinement at Azucar is absolutely in the food. While most Cuban restaurants provide flavor, they do so in a relatively greasy manner. Azucar has managed to conquer that problem. When foods are fried, the oil is clean. You can tell because you are not wiping your hands every minute or rushing off to the dry cleaner the next morning. Croquettes, ham or chicken, for example, are typically messy in other eateries. Not so here. They are crunchy and among the best you'll find, certainly in New York or New Jersey. I'd put them up against the best that even Miami has to offer.
More than anything, Azucar is a real Cuban restaurant. The ingredients are true to the cuisine, only of much higher quality than much of what you'll find in neighboring towns and in New York City. The decor is "Ricky Ricardo" (you'll see what I mean when you go). The music is Latin, with an obligatory dose of the Gypsy Kings. The TV is tuned to Univision. And a wood sign over the door bids farewell with this observation: "Only great men smoke cigars." Who am I to argue?
Alejandro Benes is Cuban and lives in New Jersey, a part of America that still allows for the enjoyment of a cigar on a night out.
Azucar Cuban Cuisine & Cigars
10 Dempsey Avenue
Dinner only -- Tuesday through Sunday
Moderately expensive authentic Cuban home cooking
Cigars from $4 to $35