Even in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t call El Unico a “find.” Indeed, the only word that comes to mind describing it is “legend.” And the meta-legend—the legend that begat all other El Unico legends—is that this is both the best and cheapest Cuban restaurant in the solar system, at least I know it. Other tales are told about the place too—regulars have stories about bringing incredulous out-of-towners here, seeing people leave $20 tips out of sympathy, or ordering the most expensive thing on the menu (a $15 churrasco) because they’ve never been able to do anything like that before.
There are other legends too; that it’s one of the best places in New Jersey for spotting celebrities or pro athletes. (I have no way of verifying this so I’ll just say “it’s a legend.”) I mean, I can’t imagine Madonna or Lance Armstrong saying “What I need right now is a huge plate of Cuban goat stew and I don’t want to spend more than five bucks!” (I myself don't even say this often enough.)
El Unico opened in 1978 and has been in the same family ever since. The founder and owner didn't want to be identified, but when I asked if he was “the silent genius behind the landmark,” nobody disagreed. Suzynne, his daughter, inventor of their new garlic sauce (a sort of Cuban chimichurri), and general woman-in-charge, heartily endorsed this description. There's also mom, and Suzynne's two brothers and if you become a regular, you'll quickly know who's related and how.
If great food makes people happy then you can tell El Unico is great before you even take the first bite. The place is filled with cheer—workers, students, and local families having a great time with big plates of food, milkshakes, or just shots of espresso. Of course, a look at the price list will cheer you up too.
Driving over one afternoon, I spent time wondering exactly what the specialty of the house was. Cuban sandwiches? Grilled meats? The big platters that changed every day? That sandwich is a good place to start. With pronounced flavors of meat, cheese, and pickle melding together, it's living proof that Cuban sandwiches are meant to be more than squished grilled cheese.
I had a bowl of soup too. Caldo Gallego—translated on the menu as “Galician Soup” but as Cuban as Ricky Ricardo—involves a large bowl of pork, beans, sausage, and potatoes in a rich broth. My dessert was black coffee. It was all I could manage. A delicious, filling meal that needed an excuse for having a price tag of seven fifty. ($8.75 with tip).
Now, if all that great food wasn’t enough, there’s the coffee—what appears to be a quadruple shot of good espresso for a buck. One of these will give you enough energy to drive to Cape May afterwards, or at least enough to stay awake following a platter of Mondongo, rice, and black beans ($4).
I’m at a loss for words here. Can I say anything else nice about this place? Actually, yes. It’s not far from Manhattan and Boulevard East, with its stupendous views, is a short stroll away. In fact, you could take a ferry from Manhattan to Port Imperial, walk up the hill to El Unico for a meal, and then head back. Indeed, the calories you’ll burn walking up the Palisades will put you in the right frame of mind for a meal there.
El Unico Restaurant
4211 Park Avenue, Union City New Jersey 07087 (map) 201-864-3931