NJ DINER MUSEUM EXHIBIT + THE PRETTIEST CUBAN FOOD
At the Cornelius Low House and Esquina Latina
It’s been almost a year since my mom first mentioned the “History of New Jersey Diners” exhibit at the Cornelius Low House. Even though the museum is right around the corner from us, we only just took her there last Sunday for Mother’s Day. Better late than never!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cornelius Low House, it is the Middlesex County Museum, which holds rotating exhibits free of charge. It’s actually down the street from the Metlar-Bodine House Museum where I interned back in 2014.
(Fun Fact: The Metlar family actually bought the Low home in 1870 and it became known as “Ivy Manor” after George and Catherine Metlar planted ivy around it.)
This two-story Gregorian-style stone house was built back in 1741 for wealthy Dutch merchant Cornelius Low. As one of only two surviving 18th century structures from the Colonial port community of Raritan Landing, it has been cited in the Historic American Building Survey of the Library of Congress.
It was a fun exhibit and we enjoyed a leisurely 90 minutes or so there. If you’re a fast reader or don’t read every plaque, it will probably take you less than an hour. My mom takes her time reading in museums so I took photos and chatted with my dad while we waited.
The exhibit was less about diner fare and more about general history and architecture along with plenty of photos from local diners. Although I love learning about food, I still enjoyed these other elements of diner history. And they had plastic replicas of diner food which was kind of entertaining. I think the buffalo wings look the most realistic.
After the museum, we took my mom to dinner. She originally guessed we were going to a diner and later asked if we were getting Peking duck but the real destination was Esquina Latina in New Brunswick.
This restaurant opened last August and describes itself as a fusion of Cuban and Latin American cuisines. Our go-to Cuban restaurant in Martino’s in Somerville so we had never been to Esquina Latina but it didn’t disappoint. The dinner entrées are fairly pricey at $17 to $29 whereas most of Martino’s menu falls under $20 but the portions were generous and the presentation was spot-on. Yes, I am a sucker for plating with flowers.
And the food was pretty darn impressive too.
I had the Dulce Balcerito, a sweet fried plantain stuffed with ground beef, Montery Jack cheese and topped with chipotle cream. It was a fantastic sweet and salty combination. And it was plated so nicely— especially for ground beef! It was kind of like a Cuban play on a zucchini boat.
I think my only complaint is it could’ve used some sort of vegetable to round out the dish. From a nutritional standpoint, it would’ve made it a more complete meal. I ate my leftovers with some grilled zucchini to cut the heaviness.
My dad went for the Rabo Encendido, an oxtail stew served with rice, black beans, grilled vegetables and yucca fries. Neither of us had ever seen oxtail that large! And we’ve ordered oxtail from Filipino restaurants, Cuban restaurants plus my dad has cooked with it before. He enjoyed his entrée and the portion was massive. The yucca fries were nothing to write home about though— they weren’t particularly crispy.
The most expensive entrée of the three, my mom ordered the Filete Canciller, two pieces of crispy flounder filled with Serrano ham, Swiss cheese and shrimp. It was served with sautéed vegetables, some sort of squash mash and Cuban Béchamel Sauce. (And if you’re picturing the Béchamel on Greek Moussaka, don’t. This sauce is nothing like it.) Like my dad’s meal, this entrée was massive. It was legitimately a pyramid of food. Both my parents had copious amounts of leftovers.
While I can count on one hand the number of times my family has ordered alcohol in a restaurant, it was a special occasion so we ordered the Signature Sangria Sampler along with a few appetizers. My dad and I aren’t fans of wine but this place is known for tapas and sangria. When in Rome, right?
With the Signature Sangria Sampler, you get to choose four varieties. Our picks were:
The Catalina: Rose, Peach Schnapps, Vodka, Lemon, Cucumber, Peaches
The Tropical: Bacardi Superior, Simple Syrup, Ginger Ale, Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries
The Mantazas: Brandy, Ginger Liqueur, Limes, Strawberries, Pineapple, Mint, Club Soda
The Santiago de Cuba: Brandy, Orange Liqueur, Club Soda, Sugar, Lemons, Oranges, Mixed Berries
But don’t take my word for it. I very much dislike wine so the sangria here could be fantastic and I wouldn’t know.
The tapas however, I greatly enjoyed. We ordered the shredded beef arepas, shrimp empanadas and tostones rellenos. All three get a thumbs up for value, taste and presentation. When we’ve ordered tapas in the past, the portions are usually quite small in relation to the price. I was so happy (and somewhat surprised) that these tapas were conducive to sharing. Each came in exactly three decent sized pieces and I was not expecting full-size empanadas.
Oh Esquina Latina, you had me at three full-size shrimp empanadas for $8.
Also because we waited so long just for someone to take our order (which was weird because at 4:30pm, there weren’t many other patrons), the hostess brought us some complimentary guacamole with plantain chips, taro chips, sweet potato and potato chips. I’m fairly certain they were all homemade too
The only thing you should note is that although the shrimp and cheese filling of the tostones rellenos is tasty, the plantains are not sweet plantains. On a scale of banana to potato, think potato. So if starchy plantains aren’t your thing, you might want to pick a different appetizer.
Even though we were ready to roll out of the restaurant, we ordered a dessert to share. They were too pretty to pass up!
Equina Latina doesn’t have the dessert menu posted online but they offer eight desserts. We ordered the Crema de Almendra, a Cuban bread cake with almond crème and mascarpone cheese. The cake was light and fluffy with a strong almond flavor. It was good but it was very sweet so a few bites was more than enough for me. I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Do I recommend Esquina Latina? Yes!
The food was delicious and the plating made me feel like they really want their patrons to enjoy the whole experience. I’ve been to other restaurants with similarly priced entrées that have lackluster presentations. I’m all for substance over sizzle but there’s nothing wrong with adding some sizzle. (And since it was Mother’s Day, they gave all mothers a complimentary carnation. So cute.)
If Esquina Latina is out of your price range, I’d suggest just ordering some tapas. Honestly, I could’ve eaten an order of shrimp empanadas and been satisfied with that as a lunch. Go with a friend. Split a salad and an order of empanadas. Done.
Things to note:
- 20% gratuity is added for parties of 6+ people
- The lunch menu has far less entrée options than at dinner but they’re more affordable. I really want to try the Costillas, baby back ribs in a pineapple & guava sauce with mashed malanga. $16 at lunch versus $22 at dinner.
(But ribs are so messy, I’d probably get sauce everywhere. Just everywhere…)
- For vegetarians, they have three entrées and three wraps you can order without meat. Personally I don’t think the entrées sound worth the price. $18 for sautéed vegetables & tofu versus $19 oxtail. I haven’t tried any of these but I would pick the $10 wrap and then maybe order a salad or a side of plantains. Seems like a better deal.
Where to Try It
25 Liberty Street
New Brunswick, NJ
1225 River Rd