On a recent Thursday, lunch was in full swing at La Cocina, a widely-known and beloved Cuban restaurant located at 61 New Street in the bustling downtown area of Newark, New Jersey. Folks from all walks of life, from cops to construction workers, were lining up inside the modest storefront and almost out the door for La Cocina’s heaping plates of grilled marinated chicken, savory beef picadillo, ropa vieja, ox tail, and other Cuban comfort dishes. Plates of meat or seafood were usually paired with rice, beans and maduros – making for a hearty, delicious lunch that was sure to not leave anybody hungry. People also ordered fresh-made empanadas, Cubano sandwiches and cups of strong black Cuban coffee.
The restaurant has been in existence since 2012, first as a Latin American fusion place and then in its final iteration as an outpost for excellent Cuban food in 2013. Since that time, it has built a loyal clientele among office workers, municipal staff, students, and locals.
We interviewed two of the owners, Manny Beovides and Josh Miller, on how La Cocina got started, why they decided to open up shop in Newark, the top dishes at La Cocina, and how they weathered the pandemic.
(Note: The restaurant is looking to hire staff. Contact information here.)
Why did you decide to open a Cuban restaurant in Newark?
Josh: In 2008, my family and I took over management of Robert’s Pizzeria, which has been here since 1985 and is a Newark staple.
Long story short, this space (present La Cocina location) became available in 2012, and I was actually living near Bergenline Avenue in Union City, New Jersey. There, I was eating tons of good Colombian and Cuban food like every day. And when we were thinking about taking this space or thinking of a concept, I thought Downtown Newark has nothing like this, and I think it would be great. And the concept started as flavors of Latin America, kind of like Latin fusion. And then Manny came on board about a year later in 2013 and that turned us into a full on Cuban restaurant.
It became a Cuban restaurant because we had our resident Cuban. He brought a whole new spark to the place. You know, Manny is the straw that stirs the drink here. We were doing well as a Latin fusion place, but we took off once we changed to Cuban cuisine.
Manny: Newark has always had different ethnic restaurants and we thought a Cuban restaurant was the perfect idea for grab and go food and good quality food. Cuban food is my culture, and I wanted to bring that into the city.
Why do you think the restaurant has been popular?
Manny: I think it’s because we have always had a great product, great prices, great service. And I always say, even if I'm selling you a six-dollar plate, it's got to be the best in service and everything and you can taste the ingredients.
We have a mix of customers who love the restaurant: Prudential, Audible, the courthouse, and college students. We get a lot of detectives from the courthouse. We have very good clientele.
What's your favorite dish here?
Manny: My favorite, it's got to be the grilled chicken. Grilled chicken with white rice and black beans. We marinate it in lemon juice. It’s excellent.
We've got quite a few popular dishes as well - the ropa vieja and we do great ox tail.
Josh: My favorite dish is the lemon chicken with yellow rice with pigeon peas, and the sweet plantains to give it a little sweetness. And I personally love our baked chicken. I think it's baked to perfection. It's crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and I can't get enough of it.
But honestly, when people ask me that question, it's hard because I eat something different every day here for lunch. I have something different every day here, and I love everything.
How did you weather the pandemic?
Josh: We're still in the middle of it. Business wise, we're still in the middle of it. Nobody is back to work yet in downtown. The schools are not back. And that’s our community, which has not been here since March 21, 2020. We see some more people returning, but it’s not at 100 percent capacity by any means. Our clients are not back yet, but we've been.
We have made it through the pandemic due to this program called Newark Working Kitchens, which supports local restaurants and residents in need. (The program is affiliated with several prominent businesses and organizations in the Newark area and beyond, including World Central Kitchen, which was started by celebrity chef Jose Andres.) Without Newark Working Kitchens, we would have been closed.
We are more optimistic about September because schools are coming back full capacity and I think some businesses are opening their offices again too, such as Prudential. We are hoping to see everybody back and new faces.
61 New St, Newark, NJ