By Sally Deering
Cuban hats adorn the windows and traditional Cuban cuisine graces the plates at Fort Lee’s newest addition to Main Street: Babalu Cuban Café. Since opening the bistro in December, owners Raul Vicente, Jr, his partner Patricia Matos, and their team of crackerjack cooks conjure up tasty dishes for new customers who are soon becoming regulars.
The café’s name pays homage to the most famous TV couple of the 1950s, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz) with posters from “I Love Lucy,” their famous TV Show adorning the walls.
“I had a steakhouse in Jersey City,” Vicente says during a quick break between customers. “My mother was my cook; she was a great cook.”
Vicente’s mother no longer could be his chef, so Vicente closed down shop and worked for others restaurateurs, running Karaoke nights in Jersey City Clubs and then doing PR for a Cuban restaurant in Edgewater. Several years after moving from Hudson to Bergen County, Vicente, with his partner Matos seized the opportunity to open a Main Street bistro.
“Cuban food is universally accepted by people outside the Latin community,” Vicente says. “The reason people are coming back to Babalu is because the food is good. But I’m not the cook. I’m the chief bottle-washer.”
The menu is all Cuban with items like Seafood soup which is traditionally served on Fridays; Chicken, and a Black Bean soup, which, on a recent visit, one customer described as delicious with beans served in a light broth rather than a thick paste ($3-$9.99).
Another popular favorite at Babalu is the Cuban sandwich made with pork, ham and turkey. A new sandwich Vicente plans to add to the menu on Valentine’s Day comes from Fidel Castro’s daughter Elena: the Babalu Turkey Jam made with turkey, cream cheese and strawberry preserves on Cuban bread toasted on a Panini press.
Sandwiches also include Babalu’s Bistec, Sandwich de Polo, Sandwich de Polo Asado, Media Noche (marinated roast pork), Shredded Pork, and Fried Spanish Sausage with Lettuce and Tomato ($5.99-$6.99). Appetizers include Chicken, Beef, or Cheese Empanadas ($2.50).
Platters feature the Churrasco Babalu – Skirt Steak with house Chimichuri sauce; Bistec de Palomilla – Sirloin Steak seasoned with garlic and Mojo with carmelized onions; and Pechuga ala Pancha, grilled chicken breast marinated in garlic and lemon ($9.95-$19.95).
Desserts include Flan, Bread Pudding and Tres Leches ($4-$4.50). There are traditional Cuban Shakes, too, like the Mango, Papaya and Guava ($4.50).
Vicente relies on a team of cooks – Jose Ramos, Mileidy Plata and Wendy Alvarado. – to create the menu’s traditional Cuban dishes and daily specials.
“I wanted to open a Cuban eatery because I wanted to add a little bit of our culture to the community,” Vicente says. “I’m going to get Ricky Ricardo’s conga drum, put the Cuban flag on it, and put it right there in the middle of the window.”
If you go
Babalu Cuban Café
302-304 Main St, FTLEE
Hours: Mon-Sun, 10 am-8 pm