Our son is getting to the age where play dates are turning into sleepovers. An opportunity for us to pretend we only have one child, at least for the evening. We took advantage of a birthday lack-of-slumber party to have ‘date night’ with our youngest daughter at Abril Cocina.
She was a perfect date. At five she is already an adventurous eater (“what is that? can I try it”?) and easy-going enough for longer adult meals. And like her mama, she loves Mexican food. The painful truth she has yet to learn is that Mexican food in the American northeast is a little sad. It’s not bad — I enjoy a lot of it — it’s just a pale comparison to the cuisine in San Antonio, Houston, and even northern California. I’m always on the hunt to find the best locally.
Abril Cocina doesn’t necessarily correct that issue, but rather goes the modern Mexican fusion route, more often found in places west like San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’m not exactly sure what took us so long to try it out, but after one visit, I’m so glad we did.
We started with my benchmark when evaluating a mexican restaurant: chips and guacamole. Keeping with the modern fusion twists that abound at Abril Cocina, their take included Serrano chiles to warm it up and toasted pumpkin seeds to add a little crunch. The chips start from corn tortillas made on the premises daily, dusted with salt and ground mild chiles adding neither heat nor spice, just flavor. We were off to a great start.
“avocado salad fresh food” by stevepb via pixabay
Tacos were up next. They are easy to share, and a great way to sample the sophisticated Latin flavors that blend seamlessly with the traditional Mexican cooking. My favorite was the pork belly carnitas served with pineapple salsa, with the perfect blend of rich and salty pork and sweet fruit. Gary and my daughter both voted for the special taco of the evening. Not surprising, as it highlighted Abril’s flair for grilled meats with carne asada with jalapeño avocado purée. The gobernador was the most fun with a corn husk smoked wild shrimp, served still smoking in a mason jar at the table. Dip in red chile sauce and add the asadero cheese for one delicious bite in a charred corn filled tortilla.
Next up in the Abril Cocina fusion tour? The brisket and grilled mushroom cheese tacos. I’ll admit I was not initially rooting for this one, as it struck me as a deviation from the inspired cuisine. Chef Rosario’s focus on technique shone through. Cheese melted on a plancha until it is crisp and brown was layered with a mix of wild mushrooms, placed on a flipped tortilla and served open-faced. No mushy quesadilla effect here — all the flavors shone both individually and together. The brisket taco spoke to me with it’s pickled mustard seeds and garlic crema. The mustard seeds were carefully boiled five times to ensure their perfect release of flavor in the taco and show the attention to detail here at Abril Cocina.
“taco tortilla food bar” by kamystry via pixabay
Like most visitors to Abril Cocina I loved the hangar steak — easily one of the finest pieces of meat I have ever had. Marinated in a mix of ancho chiles and soy sauce, the meat is extraordinarily tender and beautifully bright red. Without intervention from me, it was perfectly cooked to a flavorful almost medium rare. Served with fresh corn grits and pickled purple onions, both literal and figurative color abound in this flavorful dish.
I enjoyed the chilean sea bass a la veracruzana, which married two of my favorite regional flavors — Latin and Moroccan. Buttery fish served in a pepper and tomato based sauce and dotted with olives and capers over lemony couscous was light and satisfying. It’s the kind of dish I could happily gobble up guilt-free any night of the week while the family gorges on tacos. The nutmeg-dusted cauliflower perfectly rounded out our table.
My complaint with a number of restaurants in the area, especially those with a more ethnic influence, is that the desserts don’t always end the meal as strong as it started. Gary and I often find ourselves ditching the dessert menu and searching for the best ice cream. But at Abril Cocina, dessert is a high note to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience. The plantains foster were a surprise hit thanks to our server’s recommendation. The daily paired flavor was the Mexican hot chocolate gelato; I switched it to the salted dulce de leche and thoroughly enjoyed the combination. Of course we still had to try the chocolate and vanilla, both elevated versions of the classics.
The service at Abril Cocina is far better than what I’ve come to expect in the area. The team knew the menu inside and out and was extremely attentive. Our thoughtful waiter noticed we didn’t order any ‘kid-friendly’ items, and laughed when we explained our daughter was a full-fledged carnivore and would be extremely angry with us if we placated her with a cheese quesadilla. Their passion for the food shined in every description, including a heartfelt discussion on the merits of each flavor of gelato.
There is a kids menu, and in the early hour we arrived and dined, it was kid-friendly. As we were wrapping up it gave way to a more adult crowd, lights dimmed accordingly, and BYO bottles of wine and beer brought along to liven up the Saturday night. Abril Cocina also has sangria and margarita mixes, which we must try on our next visit.
I’m only sorry we didn’t discover Abril Cocina sooner.
175 Maplewood Avenue ⋅ Maplewood, NJ ⋅ (973) 327-2023 ⋅ www.abrilcocina.com
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