Spend enough time around cigars and cigarmakers and you are likely to try Cuban food. Try Cuban food and you're likely to fall in love. It's rich, homey and immensely satisfying cuisine that fills the belly and enlivens the soul.
Azucar, located in the Newport section of Jersey City, New Jersey, offers lovers of fine Cuban food a comfortable, spacious restaurant serving ample portions of flavorful Cuban treats: fried yucca, ham croquettes, tostones, maduros and a Cuban sandwich good enough to shut up a celebrity chef from the Food Network.
And you can smoke.
Yes, Azucar is that oh-so-rare oasis within a short ride from midtown Manhattan where you can actually smoke inside, in this case in a spacious, dark and well-appointed indoor smoking lounge with a full bar. Need you know more?
Before you think Jersey City requires a passport to find, realize that the PATH train (essentially a subway) can whisk you from 33rd or 23rd Streets all the way to Jersey City in about 15 minutes. Azucar is a pitching wedge from the PATH entrance. You can even use your MetroCard.
Chef Nick Vazquez knows how rare it is to be able to allow smoking indoors. "There's only about four of us in the state where you can smoke in a restaurant, and we're one of them," he says. "After you have a nice dinner, a nice Cognac, you go upstairs, have a nice cigar and relax. An upscale Cuban restaurant without cigars is like a mojito without rum."
Born in Cuba, Vazquez came to the United States in 1962. "I've been cooking since I came to this country." His parents worked-he had to cook for himself, learning from his mother. "She said to me, if you learn to cook, you'll never go hungry."
To fully appreciate Azucar, start with the Tipicos Antojos Cubanos Para Dos, a triple tier selection of appetizers meant for two. (It can easily serve three.) It comes with various tastes. Croquetas de jamon, porky, salty rolls filled with rice and ham before being fried; some chorizo sausage; fried yucca; beefy empenadas. If you're there during lunchtime, the Cuban sandwich is a must-as good as something you would fine in Little Havana. Vazquez combines marinated pork, Virginia ham, Swiss cheese and pickles in buttered Cuban bread, which is pressed nearly flat and cut at a sharp angle.
Vazquez was ambushed by Chef Bobby Flay for the Food Network show "Throwdown." He was being followed by a TV crew on the presumption they were taping a show on him, then one day Flay showed up with an army of sous chefs and challenged him at his native sandwich. Vazquez won.
The Cubano is only served for lunch, but there's much more on the menu than just a Cuban sandwich. And then there's the cigar space. On a pleasant day you can puff outside in the smoking patio (there's also a no-smoking outdoor section) but the indoors cigar lounge draws quite the crowd. It seats about thirty, and has a look of a man's room, something you might find in the basement of a very well heeled cigar aficionado.
"I built this room first, before I built downstairs," he says. He has a cabinet humidor with a few mixed brands, La Gloria Cubana, Casa Magna Oscuro, Arturo Fuentes, Fonsecas, La Auroras and others. The room is decorated with Cuban license plates, cigar labels, even a signed poster of Cigar Aficionado with El Duque on the cover.
"I want to give you not just food, I want to give you the whole experience," says Vazquez with a smile. "Ninety miles away, but oh so close."
Azucar Cuban Cuisine and Cigars
495 Washington Boulevard
Jersey City, New Jersey
Hours of Operation
Tuesday through Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Saturday: 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.
Sunday: 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.