Like a usual Saturday, we get to things late, and it was 9:15 before we got to La Conguita, famished. The place was almost empty, a few tables finishing up, and the staff doing the same. La Conguita sits on a corner. Three steps leading to the front door are at the point of the two lines, making the corner. The restaurant comprises of two rooms, one narrow and long, and the other main room wide and varied. Just sneaking a peak, the second dining area has an intricate mural on one wall, animated and colorful, maybe portraying some kind of history. The larger dining area that the front door opens onto has bright yellow walls, and a long window, running the length of the other. Small tables line the window, and a large lunch counter sprawls on the opposite side.
It felt old and retro, like a different place and time. The spinning stools at the counter and a menu hanging above the L-shaped island, the kitchen tiled floor (alternating colors), and the glass display case right by the front door. It was lively and Cuban music was playing over the speakers, welcoming.
Not able to decide on appetizers, as the list was long and cheap, we picked the sampler, which had a good many of the items we wanted to try. We got three different kinds of empanadas (cheese and guava, beef and chicken), stuffed cassava, stuffed potato and two croquettes. A mouthful. We both really liked the cheese and guava empanada. It was sweet and salty, crunchy on the outside and melty on the inside, a great balance of textures and tastes on both ends of the spectrum. Since then, we have tried others elsewhere (more on this another time). The others however were pretty dry and bland, not what we were hoping for and expecting. Just fried. The croquettes and stuffed potato were pretty mediocre too. The croquettes were just hot enough, and the stuffing of the potato (ground beef) was just as uninteresting as the beef in our empanada. The stuffed cassava, however, was a little more interesting—the flavors were a little different and definitely more present. The texture of yucca is starchier and more exotic than the potato.
After all this as mains we had the Pernil (listed as the house specialty) and the Churrasco. My Pernil, shredded roast pork, came with the requisite rice and beans and plantains. Unfortunately, because it was so late in the night, they were out of yellow rice, to the dismay of my date, so we had to stick to white rice (still delicious). My dish, at $8, was a startling amount of food, heaping piles of rice and pork, a healthy portion of beans and plenty of tasty plantains. The pork however, was severely delicious only in pockets. There were some mouthfuls where the natural juices of the pork was absent, and felt like I got the bottom of the pot, as they were dry and chewy. But I probably did get the bottom of the batch. The bites that did have the fatty succulent nature expected of pork were lovely, mixed with the hearty beans and neutral rice, the fat and salt were minimized to perfection.
My date had the Churrasco, a never fail dish, skirt steak, rice, beans and plantains. Unlike the many Churrasco dishes we have had in the past, this steak came topped with a mound of beautifully (but not overly) sautéed white onions, bursting with sweet and salty flavors to complement the well-seasoned steak. The onions were a welcomed surprise, adding a new dimension to the typical. They were still crunchy and added a complexity in texture to the almost perfectly cooked steak. And the accompanying chimichurri sauce made everything colorful with heat, from the steak to my shredded pork.
Uncharacteristically, we did not order dessert, probably because we saw the staff cleaning silverware, yelling in Spanish, closing the restaurant down. And also because we were unnaturally full from our late meal. The prices were astonishingly low, compared to a few other Cuban restaurants around Jersey City and Hoboken, even one that is in the same neighborhood. The value was extraordinary, so much food for a small price. The quality was also there. I am sure had it been earlier we would be able to taste the time and care put into the dishes even more. Some of the food did feel mass produced, but other dishes really shone in quality control. I would absolutely go back, at the prices and portion sizes, there many deals to be had at La Conguita Restaurant.