Cristina has long told me that if you take the Light Rail almost to the end of the line you'll hit a section full of Colombians, with wonderful bakeries and and some memorable restaurants. She waxes nostalgic about the wonderful breakfasts as she grew up in Colombia--hot coffee, guava buns and Spanish cheese; and rainy childhood afternoons when she was given hot chocolate and cheese toast to compensate for having to stay inside. I remember seeing some Hispanic neighborhoods from the window of the bus I took to get my driver's license when I was new to New Jersey, but I never explored the area until yesterday.
It was so beautiful I decided to check out the nabe early Saturday. I took the Light Rail, which I was surprised to find so crowded at 2 P.M. on a weekend, and got off at Bergenline, the stop before last on the line, seeking a restaurant whose name and address I'd found online. I was in Union City, as it turns out. Sidewalks not wide and walkable like Hoboken, but a lively, crowded Hispanic atmosphere with little shops for trinkets, religious icons, clothes, and souvenirs. As I walked I began to see bakeries. I went as far as the restaurant, some five or six blocks in, but it didn't look like much. I did note that it was still pretty busy for an off hour and that all the patrons looked like they knew what good Latin American food should taste like. Coming back to the train I stopped in a little bakery and bought just three items, not having any idea what they were. One was an empanada-looking thing, the other looked like a bun that might have guava jam inside, and, seeing a local buy what looked like a huge coconut cookie, I bought one of those too. As I began to make my decisions I wondered if I could make my choices clear, not knowing Spanish, and then I caught myself. I was in America--the girl behind the counter speaking Spanish to her customer was as American as I and could certainly speak English too! I had been so impressed with the authenticity of this little pocket of Union City that I forgot what country I was in!
All the way home I was getting more excited to try what I'd bought. Still thinking I was beginning a program of weight control I promised myself I could have ONE bite of the cookie and half of the empanada, and that I would stop there. However, I know myself pretty well and know that once I've had a bite of something, if it's pretty good it's highly unlikely that I'll stop.
When I got home I tore into my bag. I couldn't resist starting with the cookie, still thinking that I would stop after one bite. I had my reading glasses on by now so I could tell it was not a cookie at all. It might even be something savory. Tasting it, I knew it was definitely not coconut. It was slightly sweet, very chewy as opposed to crisp, and tasted clearly of corn. Of course I couldn't stop eating until I'd finished the whole thing, even though I was thinking about how good it would be for breakfast, maybe with ham or bacon or an egg--and lots of strong coffee. No matter, it was gone. Now I had permission to have one bite of one more item, which was to be the empanada. It turned out to be a nice pastry that was rather hollow, but inside, instead of a spicy meat mixture, was guava jam and a dollop of some kind of cream cheese. I had half of it. I stopped myself, because I had to try the bun. I cut the end off, and saw it was stuffed with just a little ham and cheese. The second slice went into the microwave because it clearly needed to be heated.
I looked up Colombian Corn Cake on the Internet and sure enough found out the thing has a name: An arepa. I have a recipe which I must try even though you have to buy a special kind of Colombian corn meal--I can find that for sure, if not in Hoboken, then certainly on my next trip to Union City. But as long as I'm up there, I think I'll just buy a dozen or two arepas at that bakery.