HOBOKEN, N.J. — Only two attractions lure New Yorkers and tourists across the Hudson into Hoboken: the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the bold, imaginative South American food at Cucharamama.
The dining room is a riot of colors. Walls are mustard-yellow, the bar is a steely green, floor tiles are maroon and chartreuse, and here and there hang colorful paintings. Everywhere — in a nook built into the wall, on a shelf behind the bar — are pans, spoons, cooking utensils, and trinkets the chef has brought back from South America. Lights and music are set low; candles throw shadows.
Cucharamama and its food are pan-South American, as interpreted by the restaurant’s chef, Cuba native Maricel Presilla. In May, Presilla won a James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. She has spent much of the past 30 years in South America. At Cucharamama, Presilla’s flagship restaurant (she also owns Zafra, both with business partner Clara Chaumont; and Ultramarinos, a Latin American and Spanish shop), food ranges from traditional to playful; dishes come from Bolivian, Brazilian, Chilean, Colombian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and other cuisines.
A grilled Argentine skirt steak, simply dusted with salt, is served with a saucer of red chimichurri; no frills here. Jalea, traditionally a heaping Peruvian fish fry, is made with calamari; the batter has pureed pancho peppers for flavor and their bold red color. The crispy squid comes beside a tamarillo sauce laced with rocoto peppers — a bright foil to the seafood, a condiment Presilla first tasted in Moche, Peru. Charged with bracing flavors, her jalea is a fresh look at the classic dish.
Cucharamama pitches itself as a small-plates place. Some of these are delightful (jalea, the beef empanadas), but don’t make a meal out of them. Robust entrees (skirt steak, short ribs) outshine the starters. And desserts (chocolate flan and milhojas, a pastry Presilla sweetens with malbec syrup) should satisfy your sweet tooth. The chef wrote a book about chocolate, “The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao With Recipes.” She also holds a doctorate in medieval Spanish history from New York University. This month, her latest book comes out. Part encyclopedia and part cookbook, “Gran Cocina Latina” is a 900-page tome about Latin American cuisine that includes many of Cucharamama’s popular recipes.
By far, the restaurant’s main event is its wood-fired oven. You can feel the heat of it when you sit in the main dining room; it’s a pleasant accompaniment to a rainy day. Above the oven, spare hickory and applewood rest on a beam (the beam was salvaged from a nearby railroad track). Inside, salmon splutters, flatbread toasts, and manchego melts in piquillo peppers or atop pizza dough. You can see it in the back, past the leg of Serrano ham on the bar, glowing and crackling. The soothing, primal feel goes with the bold but comforting flavors of South American food.
Paintings are by Presilla’s father. A common theme in them is women wielding big spoons. Cucharamama translates to “mother spoon,” the longest spoon used by women in Cuenca, Ecuador, to make soup. Here, it’s a tribute to the role Latin American women play in providing food for their families. Presilla adds a personal touch. The largest of the three pestles in mortars on the bar belonged to her grandmother.
Mostly, the eccentric decor deepens the feeling of being in an unusual place, quite unlike the farm-to-table movement. The chef isn’t one to follow fads. When she opened, she says, “I wasn’t interested in what was fashionable and what wasn’t. I just wanted to do great food.”
Cucharamama,233 Clinton St., Hoboken, N.J., 201-420-1700, www.cucharamama.com.Chris Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.