Having lived in South Florida, we’ve were very fortunate to have access to some of the best Cuban food you can get this side of Havana. Not only did we have neighbors that would often take pity on us, knowing I come from culinary challenged Irish stock, and provide us with their own versions of some of Cuba’s favorites, but we were within close driving distance to plenty of good Cuban restaurants. When we moved home to South Jersey, we rediscovered the one thing we really missed about food in South Florida – DINERS! But we lost all of our much loved Cuban foods.
While browsing the phone book for a new restaurant to try last weekend, I found a listing for Casona of Collingswood, a restaurant that bills itself as having “authentic Cuban and nouveau Latin cuisine.” That sounds like it might be calling my name! We phoned them to see if they were kid friendly, since we have a house full of the little rugrats, and we find out that they do not have a children’s menu, although they are not unfriendly towards children. I assume that means they won’t fatten them up and try to roast the little buggers, but we opt not to visit while we had hungry children on our hands.
As luck would have it, Jim arrived home early today from Milwaukee. His usual flight gets him in just about 11 PM, so we head for our local diner and grab a quick bite before going home. His flight today had him arriving at 7 PM. I had Eilis packed in the car and hungry, and Jim decided we would go to our favorite Japanese restaurant. We pulled in to the unusually quiet parking lot to find a sign on the window advising us that they would be on vacation. This might be a great time to try Casona!
The restaurant is on Haddon Avenue, in the heart of Collingswood, and has a large, wrap around porch with hanging baskets of fern, quaint porch lights, and delightful ceiling fans keeping the place cool and comfortable on a sticky summer evening. Inside the restaurant, there are plenty of tables and very nice wood, and the layout is definitely intimate.
We are seated, and we wait a few minutes before the hostess who seated us comes by to tell us she will be our waitress for the evening. She promptly disappeared after making that announcement, and we wondered if we would see her any time soon when she finally came back to pour some water. We had long been ready with our order, and when she asks for drink orders, we give them, and then ask if she would like to take our order. She hasn’t got a pen or a piece of paper, but she says she’s ready. We place our orders, and she disappears again.
Eilis is hungry and getting tired, and she is in no mood for food you have to eat with a fork. I try to talk her into the appetizer empanadas, but she decides she wants the tuna steak. Jim lets me choose his entree and mine. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Cuban pork (did I mention I LOVE this food?), and one of house specialties at Casona is Lechon Asado – a citrus marinated pork over saffron rice. I order that, and Jim orders my all time favorite Cuban meal, which is Ropa Vieja. We also order the black bean soup and the Cuban spring rolls.
We are soon presented with three of the Cuban spring rolls. They resemble, of course, the traditional egg roll – the long, skinny, deep fried rolls. Accompanying the spring rolls was a sauce that looked and tasted pretty much like thousand island dressing. Eilis took one bite and immediately decided she didn’t like them – although she is a huge fan of the Chinese version. Jim thought they were tasty, and finished the ones on the plate and then the remaining piece of Eilis’.
Following up the arrival of the spring rolls is the bowl of black bean soup. The good sized bowl is a very simple and traditional presentation of this popular Cuban soup. It’s not too thick and not too thin, chock full of tender black beans. There are a few dices of tomato floating around in there, and I’m a little disappointed that it’s not chorizo, which is what I originally thought it was. But, that doesn’t take away from the soup. The only criticism here is that it could have been served a bit hotter. Since having gastric bypass surgery, I don’t eat as quickly as I used to, and if a soup is coming out served warm to begin with, it’s ice cold by the time I’m enjoying the last of it.
In fairly short order, our dinners begin arriving, and the assistant waiter pushes aside the empty spring roll dish and the half empty bowl of soup to make room for the dinner dishes. Um, how about clearing them away? Novel idea.
Here’s where the restaurant departs from “Authentic Cuban” and delves into the “Nouveau Latin”. If you’ve ever been in Miami and the surrounding areas, and you go to an authentic Cuban restaurant, you will have a plate piles high with rice, beans, and whatever entree you ordered. There will be enough for you to eat, share with your dining companions, and take home for lunch the next day. But in this upscale environment, the pork and ropa vieja are expertly molded into a circular portion the size a little larger than a hockey puck. The presentation of both dishes has the rice on the bottom, the pork/beef next, and then an arrangement of fried plantains circling the top of the dish. Both dishes feature sauces – a dark brown gravy with the beef, a light brown gravy with the pork. Eilis medium-well tuna steak is presented on a tomato based sauce that she promptly declares inedible. I thought it was pretty good, and for an almost well done tuna steak, the fish was still fork tender and very flavorful.
The pork is as good as I remember it in South Florida. It is moist and deliciously seasoned all on it’s own without the sauce that accompanies it. The light brown gravy is very heavily salted. I am a salt fiend, and will eat salt on just about everything, so for me to notice the heavy salt was probably not a good thing. Someone who does not normally use salt (like my in-laws, who watch their salt intake due to high blood pressure) will find this amount of salt completely overwhelming to the sauce. The sauce on the other side – which was not described to us, and since our waitress disappeared we couldn’t ask her – was much more mellow, and when I mixed the two sauces, it definitely helped to cut the saltiness of the gravy.
Jim’s ropa vieja was tender and delicious, although not as stew-like as most of the ropa viejas I recall from South Florida. His gravy was beefy and wonderful, and the aroma from his dish just made my mouth water. We tried to get Eilis to taste it, but after a few bites of pork, she really wanted to concentrate on her fish. The ropa vieja was spotted with peas, and had just the right combination of flavors – onion, peppers, tomato. It was very good and Jim’s plate was quickly cleaned.
Since we waited until half of our meal was over before we received our drinks, we were surprised to see our waitress back just after Jim finished his meal to bring more water. We had 4 empty water glasses on the table, which Jim drained, and she only refilled one glass, which he quickly polished off. My iced tea, especially because the glass was small, was emptied rather quickly and a refill was never offered. Eilis said her soda tasted funny, and she didn’t finish the drink.
We skipped dessert at the restaurant, fearing it would be Tuesday before we ever actually saw the dessert course, but as we waited (and waited, and waited, and waited) for our waitress to collect our check, Jim decided to order something to take home. We had a delicious tres leches boxed up for us, and almost as soon as we were in the door, it was gone.
Our overall experience was enough to bring us back. The atmosphere – especially sitting out on the porch – was relaxing and casual, and without a child in tow, it would have been down right pleasant. The food really brought back great memories of some of the meals we enjoyed in South Florida, and it’s great to have someplace so close that we can go to when we get homesick for Weston. If they could just work on the service – which is a make or break thing in Jim’s book – this could easily become one of our favorite restaurants.
Casona of Collingswood
Authenitc Cuban and nouveau latin cuisine
563 Haddon Ave
Collingswood, NJ 08108