Delicious Cuban/Latin Cuisine Ranks High Above the Norm
By Sally Deering
When the Hard Grove Café’s original owner Domenic Santana opened the Jersey City restaurant on Grove Street in the early 1990s, the neighborhood was not as affluent as it is today and Santana offered locals more of a diner menu where you could get a peanut butter & jelly sandwich for a buck ninety-nine.
Times have changed and the restaurant has changed hands a couple times. In 2005, Evelyn Padin and Carmen Mendiola—two practicing lawyers and Jersey City residents – decided to try their hand at running a restaurant and purchased the Hard Grove Café. They kept on Chef Rafael Valdespino and the trio created a menu of Modern Latin Cuisine that is refined and delicious. Instead of the soupy beans and sticky yellow rice typically found at many local eateries, the Hard Grove Café’s beans are light, the rice is fluffy and both dishes are seasoned gently.
“Carmen is Cuban-American and I’m Puerto Rican and we were looking for something,” Padin says. “When we saw this place, Carmen didn’t want it closing down. Like everybody in the neighborhood, we’d known Domenic for years. So Carmen said let’s give it a go.”
And they did. Similar to how they run their law practices, Padin and Mendiola oversee every detail of the restaurant while working double-duty at their law offices.
“Every place has its checks and balances,” Padin says. “You have to hire the right people.”
The food has to be great, too, Padin says, and Hard Grove Café has definitely raised the bar with a menu that features Starters, Soups, Salads, Sandwiches, Burgers and Entrees. Soups are the Cuban Black Bean and Grandma’s Chicken Soup; salads include the Shrimp, Chicken, Mango-Avocado Salad with cilantro dressing; the Crazy Hemingway Skirt Steak Salad; and the Gloria Estefan Salad of romaine lettuce, sweet plantains, grilled chicken, and melted cheddar cheese with creamy lime & cilantro dressing.
For entrees, customers can choose Chicken, Beef or Seafood dishes like the Lemon Salsa Chicken; the Herb-Roasted Chicken with Chimmichuri Sauce; the Crispy Fish Tacos; Seafood Paella; and Ropa Vieja, slowly- braised shredded beef with onions, red and green peppers and Latin herbs. There’s a vegetarian menu and a kids’ menu, too.
“We offer vegetarian dishes with a Latin twist and a kids’ menu because no matter how messy they can be, kids are always welcome here,” Padin, who is also the mother of a four year-old, says. “Everything is fresh. When customers sit down, we give chips and salsa, and our salsa is made from scratch every day. We make our own chips fresh every day, too.”
The Cocktail menu features a section of Skinny Drinks all under 200 calories like the Coconut Strawberry Daiquiri. Hard Grove Café’s Signature Drink is the Mojito with Bacardi Rum. This Mojito is refreshingly tasty because the mint is muddled and the lime juice is freshly-squeezed and not a store-bought mix. The drink comes with a real stick of sugar cane and it’s likely one of the best Mojitos you’ll ever taste.
“We thought how are we going to brand this restaurant? It has to be the Mojitos,’ Padin says. “The public knows these Mojitos are banging.”
To spice things up, a salsa band entertains on Friday nights and Hard Grove Café hosts a weekend brunch where for $20 customers can enjoy unlimited Mimosas and Bloody Marys when they purchase an entrée. The thought-process behind Hard Grove Café’s Latin Menu, stellar service and hip atmosphere is to give customers something they’re not going to get somewhere else, Padin says.
“Food has to be original and creative and it has to be sexy,” Padin says. “Ultimately, when you’re in the restaurant business it’s all about the service. I can go home and cook a burger myself, but I come to a restaurant because I want service.”
If you go:
Hard Grove Café
319 Grove St
Open Daily: Mon-Wed, 11 am – 11 pm
Thurs and Fri, 11 am to 1 am
Sat 10 am to 1 am
Sun 10 am to midnight