That mouthful of a name translates to “mother spoon.” It refers to the enormous, long-handled implement used by women of the Ecuadorian highlands for tasks as varied as stirring soup, herding local guinea pigs, and, according to Cucharamama chef and co-owner, Maricel Presilla, “scolding their husbands if they have too much to drink.”
The spoon captivated Presilla as a symbol of the power these women wield in their communities, and she named her Hoboken restaurant after it when she opened in 2004 with business partner Clara Chaumont. A replica spoon serves as the restaurant’s door handle, but it’s securely attached, so no one should be afraid to drink, or eat.
Cucharama is an excellent place to do both, and anyway Presilla is not the scolding type.
Born in Cuba, she fled in 1970, earned a PhD. in medieval Spanish history from NYU (yes, she’s Dr. Presilla), and devoted her life to the history, anthropology, and preparation of her first love: Latin American and Spanish food. Her two restaurants (the more casual Zafra is just down the street) have garnered her James Beard Award nominations for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic for the last three years. In June, she was the subject of a 26-page story and photo layout in Gourmet.
Her knowledge is breathtaking, and she’s fluent enough to borrow flavors from around the globe without skipping a beat. The first thing you’ll receive when seated at Cucharamama, for example, is flatbread from the wood-burning oven, lightly sprinkled with ground Andean peppers, manchego cheese, and—wait for it—Parmigiano Reggiano. It comes with a wooden spoonful of butter laced with white-oak honey, which adds a gentle sweetness. The flatbread is also available as a pizza topped with Serrano ham, red onion, and Parmesan for the perfect measure of sharpness.
The pizza appears in the Piqueo, or appetizer, section of the menu, which contains about 30 small plates ranging from $7 to $14 apiece. Separate from that are vegetable side dishes and rice dishes, to say nothing of entrées and larger items from the wood-burning oven. You may look at the cacophony of sopas, empanadas, acompañantes, and platos principales, which run three pages in a small font, and think, All of this cannot be great. You’d be right, of course. But I didn’t encounter a single bad dish at Cucharamama, which is astonishing when you consider the sheer number of dishes they offer. The weakest are simply okay; the best are transcendent showcases of flavor, innovation, and technique.
Empanadas fall into the latter category. They use just enough dough to encompass, in the case of an empanada de carne, a balanced medley of hand-chopped beef, onions, raisins, and hot peppers. In a restaurant named for an Ecuadorian soup spoon, you should try the Ecuadorian soup—sango de choclo, a vivid corn and plantain chowder with a faint kick of pepper, just the right amount of crisp red onion, and enough plump shrimp to include one in every spoonful.
Yet tamales best showcase the kitchen’s virtuosity. Try tamal de pepián vallecaucano, made from a silky mixture of house-ground white corn meal wrapped around a peanut hash and creamy tomato sauce made with Colombian cheese, or the tamal de maíz tierno, made from fresh corn and topped with unctuous slices of roasted bacon. Both had me scraping the bottom of the corn husks in which they’re served, hunting for the last delicious tidbits.
It’s possible to regard Cucharamama as a tapas bar, based on its preponderance of small plates and the fact that it’s a great place to drink. Two cocktails I tasted at the bar during a lengthy wait for a table were so good, I decided I would need to sample them all. I did, and have no regrets—flawless and often surprising versions of South American classics served at the graceful, spoon-shaped bar are nuanced and varied enough to pair with food. The biggest surprise was La Florida, a gin mojito, which introduced complex, refreshing notes of pine to the winning combination of sugar, lime, and mint.
There was an excellent daiquiri mambi made with dark rum, fresh lime, and sugar cane juice, and a perfect pisco sour. But my favorite was the horchata, a creamy drink made with almond milk, which tasted like a nutty milkshake with undertones of cinnamon and seeming hints of aged rum, yet it is not made with rum. It’s made with a wannabe rum called Aquardiente Elvenado. “Rum is too strong in flavor,” says Presilla. “We wanted the almond flavor to shine.”
Small plates are the surest path to an excellent meal here. Entrées do not display the same nuance and intensity. I would have taken any three of the piqueo dishes over fatty beef short ribs smothered in a red-wine reduction whose deep color promised layers of concentrated flavor but didn’t deliver. A skirt steak as long as my forearm and flat as cardboard had two-dimensional flavor to match. I was enticed on my first visit by whole roast pork leg on the menu until I read the fine print: five-day advance order required. If you must order a main, go with organic free-range chicken, which emerges moist and delicious from the oven thanks to a marinade spiked with plenty of garlic and bitter orange.
Another reason Cucharamama feels more appropriate for cocktails and small plates rather than the leisurely white tablecloth experience is the atmosphere. At its best, it’s a vibrant bustle accented by Latin music, the flicker of the wood-burning oven, and the vivid tropical paintings. But the bustle can become irritating when the crowd stands three deep at the bar and your 8:30 reservation becomes 9:15 with no apology or suggestion where to stand to avoid the constant traffic from the kitchen. Servers are polite and well versed, but waits between courses can be agonizing.
Dulce de leche figures prominently in the dessert list, from an astonishingly rich ice cream to an enormous but bland cake. Presilla wrote a book on chocolate, so I had to try her chocolate flan. It had spicy, savory, complex character, thanks to a mix of vanilla, bitter anise, star anise, and a dusting of cocoa nibs for added bitterness and crunch.
“It’s like a colonial drink, only solidified,” Presilla explains, referring to the spiced chocolate beverages of the Spanish colonial period. To my mind, it was just a damn good dessert. Then again, I’m not a culinary historian.—Stan Parish