I’m at Rumba Cubana. It’s 6:40 pm; I’ve got reservations at 7:00 for 3. The place is almost empty except, of course, for the bar. Typical. I walk across the concourse to check GPs for a barstool to pass the time. The outdoor area divides a long row of nondescript commercial space attached to luxury apartments. It’s filled with outdoor diners in their best business casual. Lavender Izod polos tucked into khakis. Men’s Wearhouse buy-one-get-eight dress shirts. Androgynous dresses, banal flats. Are they coworkers or friends? Is this a meeting or a dinner? Is there any distinction between these things anymore? Does it matter if there’s not?
GP’s is so dark I wonder if the power is out. The bar is empty. Good news. The light is shining through through the blinds and bouncing off the bar. You’d be able to see the dust pass through the beams if this place was an authentic version of what its claiming to be. Like how Planet Hollywood would be a cool retro diner if you could change the gimmick thats enmeshed to its profit model. No place for dust here. Apparently no happy hour either, as the bartender informs me with an amused grin, as if to say “are you sure you’re in the right place?” I order an overpriced Belgian beer, one that would make the Trappist who brewed it curse at their indifferent deity. I check my phone. Fuck me, the reservation is for 7:30.
To my left, theres one of those Rat Pack-era round corner booths filled with an Indian family and a stroller. The child looks about 5, which is maybe 4 years and 8 months too old for a stroller. He’s jumping in between mom, dad, then grandmother, then snakes back across grandma, dad, and mom to repeat the process. The only disruption from this loop is the occasional hair-raising shriek that would cause an Amber Alert if not for the smile behind it. Instead of a Dean Martin backhand, this display is met with a politeness that can only be explained by generations of British Imperialism. I’m reminded of Shooting an Elephant.
Two new patrons sit at the bar. A white couple, probably early 40’s. She’s in a black dress, he’s in a faded teal t-shirt. It looks like its from a beach bar, maybe says something like “Salty McPirate’s” or some shit. He says he likes to surf; she says she’s already had a couple Chardonnays before coming here. This is a 40+ Tinder date for sure. She knows the bartender and is telling him everything about this guy as if she’s looking for Dad’s approval. The bartender presses the beau about geography. Beau gets defensive. Who’s fucking whom? The bartender gets pulled away by some stereotypical millennial woman looking for the wifi password, which he provides. She doesn’t want a drink. She gives no thank you and plops her laptop on the bar and begins typing. She’s dressed like Jerry Seinfeld. I leave a $20 and get the fuck out of there.
The transition from GP’s to Rumba Cubana is like walking into the Land of Oz for the first time. There is color! There’s life! Cuban salsa, a wall of percussive instruments, syncopated horns, and janky piano is designed to move even the palest hip, a welcomed contrast from the pre-coital banter previously filling my earholes. The smell from the kitchen is insane and present in every cubic centimeter of air that surrounds you. It declares itself at your nose with a tinge of citrus, down into your lungs and dancing back out your mouth leaving behind faint footprints of onions and garlic.
There was no need for reservations as tables on every side of us are empty, save for one vaguely Aryan family who are not enjoying their time together.
Give me drinks, give me apps, give me something right now so I can enjoy my brief time on earth. I want to order everything. My Cuba Libre ($8) is damn near translucent and the frozen Hemingway Daquiri ($8) demands multiple orders.
The apps are traditional and well executed. This is not high end – its not supposed to be – and the price tag reflects it. The empanadas ($7) are good, not great, with exception of the great guava and cheese. The classics, Croquetas and Papas Rellenas are good and are $3 a piece. You can find better, but not in Jersey City. Tostones with Chorizo ($7) would be a standout if they were served anywhere else, but are lost in the shuffle of high-quality regular ass Cuban food. To be honest, the meal could end right now and everyone would be satisfied.
But we’re not stopping. It’s my birthday.
First, Mofongo topped with Ropa Vieja ($8) . I love mofongo, and the Cuban variety is usually the least appetizing in my opinion. Puerto Rican is king, and Dominican is a close second, though if you take away the option for queso frito the gap is much wider. This, however, is a hybrid and could use a bit more of the greasy, salty, garlicky goodness. The Ropa Vieja sitting atop the mound of mashed plantain did a great job hiding its flaws and was incredibly tasty.
Lechon Asado ($10), slow roasted pork, shredded and served with black beans and maduros. This is fatty, but has enough citrus to cut through. There’s a little hit of oregano on the finish. Find me a better dish of pork in JC for $10 and I’ll fucking blow you. Well, maybe Mi Casa’s Pernil. But still, this shit is good.
Last, Vaca Frita ($10), braised beef, shredded, then thrown under the salamander to get the shit crispy on top. This dish is a motherfucker. Savory beef, seasoned heavily with lime, pickled onions, all binded together with fatty beef juice. My mouth is dripping like Pavlov’s dog in anticipation. This is my favorite, and it wasn’t close. I make a mental note to get this again.
At this point you’re probably wondering why I’m writing in present tense, or why I wasted half of this article talking about my 30 minute bar experience at GP’s. Here’s why: Hamilton Park does not deserve this place. There’s no way. You’re telling me there isn’t any other neighborhood in this city that could accommodate this place? Bullshit.
The insufferable residents will inevitably drive the staff of Rumba Cubana to organize a Jonestown style suicide via poisoned mojito. Little Hayden, and Brayden, and Jayden will be dragged from the backseat of mommy’s BMW to enjoy a bit of culture, but not before several qualifiers and adjustments to ensure that any semblance of culture is removed to be compliant for little Caden’s dietary restrictions. “Can I have the Vaca Frita, but with chicken? He has a red meat allergy. Well, actually, he doesn’t have one, I read on Mommy Poppin’s that eating red meat COULD result in a red meat allergy. Is there any way we could get this without citrus too? It’s not good for children to have citrus before 40 because it impacts their self image. Sir, are you OK? Sir? SIR???! Oh my god he’s foaming at the mouth!” Come to my neighborhood. We will love you more.
Rumba Cubana isn’t Michelin star dining. The food doesn’t look flashy and as a result isn’t super sharable via Instagram. There are no new concepts that will blow you away. Fuck, its not even new, there are 3 other locations. But it TASTES GOOD, which is the most important part of a meal, NOT how it looks on social media. The reason the main image on this post is some dude in a Kangol is because these fuckers don’t even have a Yelp, their website is a disgrace, and this is the first shit that popped up on Google Images. This needs to be commended! Getting attention based on the reputation of consistently making high quality food for an affordable price – what a novel fucking concept!
Rumba Cubana is really good food, for really cheap, and they’re not trying to dazzle it up with any social media bullshit to trick you into coming. Support this place.
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