Â By Sally Deering
Â Eighteen months ago Chef Ed Cotto, Jr., and his wife Maria discovered a little nook on Varick Street in Jersey City and turned it into ME Casa, a divine little restaurant where the star is traditional Puerto Rican cuisine served in grand style. Cotto, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and spent much of his childhood in his familyâ€™s native Puerto Rico, has a special ingredient he adds to all his dishes: he calls it heart and soul.
â€œIâ€™m a little disturbed Latin cuisine hasnâ€™t elevated,â€ Cotto says on a recent afternoon as he prepares for the evening dinner crowd.Â â€œI went to Puerto Rico a couple years ago and not only didnâ€™t they change their physical dÃ©cor, it was the same dishes I had 20 years ago. Puerto Ricans have been content selling Puerto Rican food to Puerto Ricans. My challenge is to sell it to people of other cultures. Roast pork is roast pork, how do you make it differently? â€
The dining room, red-bricked lined with tables covered in white linens, is intimate and warm with Latin music
playing softly in the background. Itâ€™s a BYOB restaurant and Cotto encourages his guests to bring their own wine or beer to complement his menu, which offers select traditional Puerto Rican dishes by Cotto.
â€œMy boss is the people who sit here in these chairs,â€ Cotto says. â€œGood food and hospitality, it has to go hand in hand. I want my customers to connect.â€
Cotto offered a visitor a few ME Casa signature dishes to taste like the Mofongo Al Pilon, mashed green plantains and garlic topped with beef (shrimp or chicken) stew which was very tasty. The beef in the stew was tender and the gravy had some really nice flavors. Another delicious house specialty is the Pernil Asado, traditional marinated pulled pork. A real standout is the Alcapurias, fried mashed green banana and plantain filled with beef Picadillo. This appetizer is served with a choice of three sauces, one of which is the â€œIncredible Hulkâ€ a tomato-based sauce that is not too spicy. Served like a mini turnover, the Alcapurias has an outside texture with nice crunch while the ground beef inside is lighter than air â€“ a delicious combination of flavors and textures. No wonder Yelp has named ME Casa No. 1 in its league.
â€œThese are real traditional dishes,â€ Cotto says.â€ Our Roast Pork Pernil, I render it down for 12-14 hours. Itâ€™s not like southern-pulled pork, but itâ€™s as moist as you can get before dipping. I serve it with crispy pork crackling on top. You canâ€™t have pulled pork without crispy pork crackling on top.â€
The menu also features appetizers like Chicharron De Pollo, crispy deep-fried chicken pieces; the Empanada Sampler with a choice of three chicken, beef or shrimp empanadas; and Mini Mofongos, garlic-mashed green plantain cups filled with beef, chicken and shrimp.
Entrees include Filete De Tilapia, pan-seared tilapia topped with fresh spicy mango salsa or Mojo Isleno style (garlic and onion red sauce); Chuleta Frita, fried pork chops topped with caramelized onions; Asopao De Camarones, shrimp gumbo; Pollo Boracho, chicken breast prepared in Sofrito, onions and beer; Bistec Encebollado, sirloin steak topped with caramelized onions; and Carne Guisada, traditional Latino beef stew.
Before studying to be a chef, Cotto started his career in finance, working atÂ Smith Barney, Deutche Bank, Barclays and Goldman Sachs. He was Vice President at Nomura Securities when he decided to open his own restaurant.
â€œI went to the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City at night,â€ Cotto says. â€œI first learned how to cook as a kid. My mother had a small catering business in Brooklyn.â€
In the 1990s, Cotto says he studied other restaurants that specialized in Puerto Rican cuisine, but it seemed they were more like bars and nightclubs that served Puerto Rican food as an after-thought.
â€œWhat theyâ€™re marketing is their bar or club; we donâ€™t want to do that,â€ Cotto says. â€œHere, at ME Casa, the customer is getting quality food. Who throws Puerto Rican cuisine better than I do? My mom.â€
ME Casa caters corporate events and private parties on site or on location and Cotto has done his research, connecting with local businesses and hospitals who are booking his catering services for their holiday parties. And now its pasteles season, so he has a special chef who makes them for the many orders he fills. Pasteles are meat turnovers wrapped in green banana and served as a traditional treat during the Christmas season.
â€œPasteles season is right now,â€ Cotto says. â€œWe sell them by the dozen, beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian. Itâ€™s a traditional dish â€“ Puerto Rican comfort food.â€
If you go:
ME Casa (Su Casa)
356 Varick Street
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-10 pm
Fri, 11:30 am-11 pm
Sat, 1-11 pm; Sun, 1-10 pm