When the platter of oxtails arrives at our table, I catch my breath: The hunks of beef in a thick broth look at once statuesque and dignified, yet humble and stubby. The beef comes off the bones as easily as flakes of a buttery croissant. I swoosh the strands in the meaty sauce, smile that there’s the perfect proportion of fat, and want to shout a thank you to the chef responsible for doing right by a dish that’s been commandeered by the fanciest of restaurants and made into something no self-respecting peasant wife ever intended.
I’m able to bid thanks to Francisca, our server at El Artesano in Union City, where we’ve followed our noses on an early winter evening turned mild. It’s a serendipitous skip we’re taking down Bergenline Avenue, where New Jersey’s Havana on the Hudson conjoins Union City and neighboring West New York. We’re thinking Cubanos, maybe some empanadas. Sure, El Artesano is a stalwart, more than 40 years anchoring the neighborhood now, and we’re looking for the newest kid on these blocks.
But the old guard’s the charm on this day. Those oxtails, $12.95 for a ploughman’s portion that comes with a side of mildly sweet yucca and the freshest mound of black beans and rice north of Miramar, K-Os the $35 oxtails I’ve had at posh spots where the soul has been strained and skimmed out of a cut of beef that’s meant to have the embrace of gelatin in every bite.
So there, fat-o-phobes. Francisca smiles back as we ask for an order of oxtails to go. The homefront won’t be happy with only the scant remains of the dish, which came after bacalao fritters that saw salt cod all but melt under the crunch of a super-crisp crust, jamon-and-queso empanadas package ham-and-cheese with the deft, artistic pinch of a top patissier, and chicharrones done the Colombian way with pork strips fried and served ready to squirt the juices of pure cerdo at first bite. We eat those fritters, empanadas and the fried pork along with a ball of mashed potato cosseting ground beef and another empanada that yields to small chunks of beef. Everything is seasoned to enhance—not to dominate, but not to cater to the palates of a flavor-shy gringo or gringa, either.
If you’re gearing up for the oxtails, you can skip the impersonal crab empanadas and the mushy jamon-and-pollo croquettes. But make sure you bring along dining companions who will hold up their end of the bargain and share with the table a couple of El Artesano’s famous sandwiches: The classic Cubano can come on soft, sweet bread, an option to consider, surely, as this bread warms to the melting cheese, which in turn melts into the ham and roast pork. A brisk smack of mustard, a flash of thinly sliced pickles, and all’s right with the world. (Almost: I always wish for more pickles on a Cubano; is that the gringa in me talking?)
On this night, when ropa vieja is a special, it’d be criminal not to order a sandwich of the distinctively Creole-spiced shredded beef—especially since it comes cross-hatched with skinny batons of fried potato, which do a textural yin-yang dance with the silky meat.
We could eat all night. Francisca, detailed in her descriptions of every dish on the menu, determined to steer us right, watchful of our needs for more napkins, clean silverware, a take-out container or three, is a diner’s dream guide. El Artesano does right by her pride.
El Artesano, 4101 Bergenline Avenue, Union City. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 201-867-7341;elartesanorestaurant.com.Click here to leave a comment