Martino's Cuban Restaurant II
1982 Washington Valley Road
Martinsville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(Restaurant Now Closed)
Somerville location at 212 West Main Street open Tuesday through Sunday. 908-722-8602
By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
In 1994, so the story goes, Martino Linares, a native of Cuba, found himself hopelessly lost on Somerville's main drag, stopped to ask directions, and happened upon a vacant storefront. Within several months, this odd series of coincidences materialized into Martino's Ristorante, a somewhat less than successful Italian eatery in the midst of a bevy of Italian eateries located in the Somerset County seat. When one of the locals admonished the chef/proprietor that, given his ethnic heritage, the establishment's current menu was something of a culinary oxymoron, this proved to be sage advice... which Mr. Linares was quick to take to heart. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Martino's Cuban Restaurant has been extremely successful in its Somerville location... So much so that the Linares family recently opened a second establishment in Martinsville. Ironically enough, Martino's Cuban Restaurant II, sandwiched rather unceremoniously between a Quick Chek convenience store and Chinese take-out at the heart of a bustling strip mall, occupies the space formerly inhabited by, of all things, a rather nondescript Italian ristorante.
The interior strikes one as somewhat Spartan -- plain wooden tables, white paper napkins, and a minimum of decorative ornamentation -- but the welcome is warm, the service proficient and knowledgeable, the tariffs outlandishly inexpensive, and son Ulysses' generous allocations of "Pre-Castro Cuban Cuisine" with a variety of equally robust South American gastronomic digressions reassuringly sustaining.
Be advised, however... if you're on a quest to discover the subtle nuances of Nuevo Latino, you've obviously arrived at the wrong address. The presentations here aren't particularly innovative or sophisticated, but they are, for the most part, quite satisfying. This is Cuban comfort fare... lusty, bold, and pulsating with a plethora of ingratiating flavors.
The Croquetas Cubanas, Cuban Croquettes ($3.95), for example, are delightfully sassy. Smoked ground ham is lightly breaded, deep fried, and glazed with a tangy tomato sauce. Rich and meaty of countenance, they hold the palate in an overwhelmingly sensuous embrace. Unfortunately, the Empanadas Cubanas -- cornmeal meat pies stuffed with ground pork and potatoes and finished with a garlic tomato sauce sprinkled with cilantro ($4.25) -- lack the same delicate disposition. In point of fact, they are downright chewy in spots.
On the other hand, semi-spicy chunks of Spanish sausage in a rich sauce spruced up with onions, peppers, and lime juice ($6.95) push all the right gastronomic buttons... as does the simple yet engaging black bean soup ($1.95 cup/$3.95 bowl). And if you'd prefer to start things off with a gift from the sea, be sure to sample the clams Cuban-style ($5.95). The littlenecks are plump and succulent and are stuffed with an irresistible combo of shredded pork, potatoes & vegetables, and finished with a seasoned garlic tomato sauce.
As is true in many restaurants, entrées are not quite the equal of their predecessors... And the chief culinary culprit appears to be an overly zealous saucier. Embellishments here are not terribly subtle; although, given the proper match ups, this need not be a major stumbling block to one's enjoyment. Many sauces, however, are often called upon to do double and triple duty... which means they tend to have infinitely more in common with certain objects of their affection than they do with others...
And an assertive and overly viscous concoction of garlic, cilantro, and lemon juice is surely a case in point. It finds a willing partner in the sautéed breast of chicken strips ($11.95)... But more elegant creatures, like the sautéed shrimp ($15.95), for example, stand not the ghost of a chance against the aggressive onslaught.
The grilled pork tenderloin suffers a similar fate at the hands of an overdose of caramelized onions and garlic. Only the onions are not caramelized... they are burned; and the resulting acridity obviously obviates any natural flavor that may originally have been present and, quite literally, leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.
As noted above, you do not expect a great deal of subtlety here. But it might be advantageous to allow the food to speak for itself upon occasion, to permit the indigenous tastes and textures to shine through, rather than have them suffocated beneath an armada of gravies and sauces.
The only entrée that truly reaps the benefits of this sort of overt smothering operation is the boliche ($12.95), an eye of round stuffed with seasoned Spanish sausage and braised in a savory combo of red wine, garlic, onions, red & green peppers, carrots, and cilantro. The roast is then carved into thick, fork-tender slabs and inundated with the resulting gravy. This is mom's homespun pot roast, Cuban style... and it is Chef Ulysses' indisputable winner.
Most main courses are accompanied by rice and black beans, both nicely seasoned. Sweet plantains also put in an occasional appearance. If they do not, be sure to order up a side ($3.50), as their honeyed countenance provides a delicious counterpoint to the otherwise spicy -- though hardly incendiary -- proceedings. And the fried yuca ($3.95), cubes of cassava, a starchy, potato-like vegetable, also makes an excellent companion to your meal.
There are only two desserts ($2.50) in the offering here, but both acquit themselves reasonably well. The classic flan is properly textured and holds just a hint of sweetness. The tres leches -- a moist white cake saturated with whole, evaporated, and condensed milk and finished with a whipped cream icing -- on the other hand, is positively cloying.
Like its elder sibling, Martino's Cuban Restaurant II isn't about to set the culinary world on fire... It does, however, succeed in adding a comforting touch to both the palate and the pocketbook... And that is sufficient praise for any eatery.
Cuisine: Cuban/South American
Hours: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes