I've just come back from my first trip to the Ironbound in years. I wrote an account of my trip for my mom and some of my friends. I've decided to share it with you... mainly because some of you might not know of Casa Vasca (though it's regularly mentioned on this board). And it's so good!!!
My Dad and I used to go to Casa Vasca, a Basque restaurant in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey. We'd stroll around the neighborhood and make a day of it. Today I went back for the first time in almost ten years.
The Ironbound is quite special. Years ago, waves of Portuguese immigrants came to a rundown part of Newark and made it their own. Though the two story houses with wood siding are quintessentially north New Jersey, there's somehow a European flair to the neighborhood. Less so today than I remembered... a lot of those outdoor fruit stalls, those smoky cafes filled with Portuguese expats, are gone, replaced by bigger stores. The neighborhood is more diverse...Mexican restaurants, Ecuadorian markets.
But Casa Vasca was unchanged. Same owner, Maria, who remembered me and called the chef out to greet me, same waiters, even the same guys drinking at the bar. (I asked one of them if he'd been there ten years ago and he told me he's been coming there for 30 years.)
There are three things to know about eating at Casa Vasca. First, you don't eat in the fancy dining room. You eat in the adjacent room, a cafe and bar. That's where the locals go... guys from northern Spain. Second, you don't order off the menu. You order off the blackboard. Each morning Maria goes to market, sees what's freshest, puts it on the blackboard. Today, there were about five kinds of fish... hake a la romana, salmon Bilbao style, bass with green sauce, and monkfish a la vasca. There were also some meat dishes...pork chops, tripe, and chicken, each with a different sauce. I ordered the monkfish. They asked if I wanted soup. I said yes. That's the third thing. Soup is always good. And it's free. There's also a basket of lovely bread from a local Portuguese bakery.
Now Basque food is reknowned throughout Europe. In his book about French cuisine, Waverly Root devoted a full chapter to it. (Some Basques live in France.) In medieval times, pilgrims from all over Europe crossed Basque territory to get to the shrine of Compostela, and they brought their recipes with them. No doubt they swapped recipes with the local innkeepers, to pass the long winter nights. Basque chefs are considered the best in Spain. They've learned a lot of classical French techniques and these show up in the food. You can get a great sauce nantua or sauce vert at Casa Vasca.
The food arrived. Three monkfish steaks in a lovely green sauce, slightly acidic with fish stock and garlic, and it set off the fish perfectly. So much sauce (and fish) that it came in a steel bucket... a foot in diameter with walls three inches high. There was a ladle to scoop the sauce over the rice... but what a waste. I ate the sauce plain. And the rice plain too... their giveaway rice, cooked in broth, is the best yellow rice I've tasted. Oh I forgot... swimming in the sauce were four clams and about fifteen shrimp!
Sated, happy, I said goodbye to all, promised to return, strolled around the lively streets, and took the PATH subway back to New York City.