So we went to ME Casa in Jersey City, a small Puerto Rican spot, boasting great yelp reviews and word of mouth. The tiny subterranean restaurant was most definitely small and almost every table was full that Saturday night. It is a sweet, little set up, dark with candles and white table clothes, music in Spanish just under being too loud. I could not help but notice that despite its small size, two staff members were not enough for the mildly busy Saturday night.
We were not the only couple waiting for a table, but we were the couple that ended up waiting much longer than the host/waiter/owner said initially. Unfortunately, he looked frazzled, overwhelmed, and perhaps in too deep. It was apparent that he was trying to be in too many places at once; behind the front counter to greet the crowd, serving dishes to a loud party of girls, answering the phone and being overall attentive. Also during our long wait, we were able to notice, that as well as some of the new enough restaurant’s surface shortcomings.
As previously mentioned, there was not enough staff to meet the needs of the visiting patrons. Sometimes, small spaces and table capacity does not require too many people working, but on a Saturday night with a steady stream of people, more could be beneficial. There is nothing worse than leaving a bad impression because of a simple service problem that could be fixed.
This was underlined even further during our meal, as we had the perfect view to watch a lady who ordered for take out fight for the attention of the staff. I saw her frustration and felt it too, just in our wait and seeing the disorganization. It almost looked as if they were ignoring her, treating other patrons as if they were more important.
This was also reflected in our meal. It was really really slow. Some times that can be equated with precision and quality, but in this case it seemed like an overrun kitchen. Looking around, it seemed like many of the people were waiting for food. It was rare that many of the tables had their food at the same time. Sometimes it felt quiet, silence from hunger and frustration and modified patience.
I was too hungry for the food to be slow. My date and I spent much more time there than we thought. There was plenty of time between the ordering of the appetizers, the food coming out and our entrees took a while too. It was very slow moving, even when it looked like the servers were whizzing around.
Not only did the food take a while to come out, but it was not practical or very attractive. I noticed so many people taking home leftovers. The portions of the entrees felt really large, because with each entrée you are offered the option of any of the sides. This is a way that restaurants lose money, especially if the menu items have low price points (two meals for the price of one…good for us but not for them). The presentation of the dishes were not really visually appealing, even when the ingredients and the kind of traditional cuisine could have been presented in a much more inspiring way.
I ordered the shrimp mofongo, mostly because of the rave reviews on yelp. It was pretty delicious, but the mashed green plantains overwhelmed the meaty shrimp. There could have been more shrimp to balance all the starch and the flavorful red sauce. I enjoyed the texture of the plantains and their heaviness, but it was too much. The shrimp were well cooked and large and meaty, but there were too few. My date had the tilapia with mango salsa. This dish was very straightforward but also a lot of food; large pieces of fish lightly breaded smothered with a pico de gallo spattered with fresh sweet mango. It was delicious, but really easy and dependent on cilantro.
Even though the food tasted good, it was heavy in unnecessary ways. We were given grease drenched garlic toast, delicious and tempting, but mildly difficult to eat. Also the cod cakes, flat contrary to some we have had in the past, were heavy with grease from being fried. We both reasoned that there could have been a way to eliminate some of the excess to make them more enjoyable.
ME Casa is a relatively new establishment testing its boundaries and the lay of the land, from patrons to portions, and adjusting to the demands. Maybe it was just that one Saturday night that threw them for a loop, not the typical order of things, but the disorganization and the grueling waiting did not give me a great first impression. The close and cozy atmosphere is inviting enough to return to, and the food and the prices are just fine for an easy night out. I really hope that ME Casa is able to iron out the wrinkles in service and efficiency to make it a truly successful and welcomed addition to the community.