Restaurant Review


You know a portion is large when people at the next table lean toward you and say, “Excuse me, we couldn’t help noticing, but that is huge. What is it?” Answer: Lua’s marinated, slow-roasted pork shank. “Wow. It looks good.”

It is. Generous portions and high quality don’t always go hand in hand, but they do at Lua. The whole pork shank, as chef Ricardo Cardona serves it, is about the size and shape of a small flowerpot evenly roasted to a deep brown. The intensely flavorful skin has a delicious crackle and a luxuriantly melting interior. The meat itself is totally lean and tender, redolent of the lemon, garlic and herbs in which Cardona marinates it for two days. “We cook it forever, covered with banana leaf,” says. “I haven’t seen one person finish the whole thing.” Pork shank is a plebeian cut, and Lua to its credit passes on the savings. At $20, the dish is an absolute bargain. Lua is a sprawling, high-ceilinged place, with a 150-seat dining room, a bar area bigger than many restaurants, a patio for warm-weather dining, and a semi-private lounge with room for dancing when the deejay holds forth. The look is sleek and ultra-modern, yet the atmosphere is intimate. On a Saturday night, young couples cluster around the 360-degree elliptical bar, whose surface is made of amber and illuminated from within.

The restaurant opened in January on the ground floor of a luxury apartment tower overlooking the Hudson River at the north end of Hoboken, where the scene is surprisingly placid. As you sit on the patio or gaze through the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, you’re treated to a promenade of joggers, bicyclists, and strolling couples. The big event is the docking of the ferry, engines rumbling and horn bellowing.

The wonder of Cardona’s Latin fusion cuisine is how nuanced it is. You won’t feel as if you’re eating the same dish over and over. The seviche is a perfect example. A specialty here, it’s available in three versions, a special of the day, and a three-seviche sampler. The Chino Latino seviche, as the name suggests, connects Latin with Asian flavors: Yellowfin tuna is marinated in a marinade of creamy coconut, wasabi, and Asian chili, and the balance of hot and sweet is just right. Other seviches play pleasing tricks with textures. The Tropical, made with a tomato-chipotle marinade, juxtaposes avocado with shrimp and a third, wonderful element that goes crunch, which turns out to be toasted corn nuts. An innovation? Actually, Cardona says, it’s a Peruvian tradition.

On a big menu, many appetizers shine. The short-rib taquitos—three small individual soft tacos filled with luscious beef, corn salsa, fresh cheese, and black beans—are exceptional. Cardona’s affinity for Asian food comes across strongly in the pork-and-shrimp spring rolls with mango-chili dipping sauce; they’re scrumptious and definitely not textbook.

Among entrées, the seared tuna fillet with Thai chili crust is marvelous, sitting atop a sublime mound of coconut rice flavored with pineapple in a pool of carrot-lemongrass-ginger sauce. The saffron-scented paella, heaped with chicken, chorizos, and seven kinds of seafood, is moist and flavorful.

Lua’s revelatory dessert, from pastry chef Carmen Terres, doesn’t sound terribly exotic: the churros—thin, rod-shaped doughnuts, hand-rolled from a simple dough, then deep-fried, rolled in sugar and cinnamon, and served hot. They’re amazing—slightly crisp on the outside, heavenly rich and chewy on the inside. They come with chocolate sauce and dulce de leche, both good, but the winner is the maple syrup mulled with ancho chilies. Dip a churro in that and your horn will toot as happily as the ferry’s.

Reviewed: November, 2005.