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In 2000, Cuban-born business partners and friends Maricel E. Presilla and Clara Chaumont decided to open a casual Latin restaurant near their homes in Hudson County, New Jersey. Hoboken, a small city on the Hudson River, seemed the perfect choice. Populated by young professionals who like to eat out and buzzing with a lively nighttime scene, it felt like a slice of Manhattan.

Since its opening on a cold January morning, Zafra has become a popular destination for those looking for delicious Latin food. A combination of vibrant oil paintings by Cuban artist Ismael Espinosa, Maricel’s father, and colorful oilcloth tablecloths carry a dual message: Zafra‘s food is as serious as great Latin art, but its mood is as casual and welcoming as a popular Latin kitchen. The menu, based on Maricel’s trips throughout Latin America, is pan-Latin with dishes so authentic and vividly flavored that you feel transported to Latin America when you eat them.

Designed to provide service from morning until late in the evening for a diverse clientele ranging from locals to New Yorkers, Zafra is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Zafra also serves brunch from morning ’til mid-afternoon on both Saturdays and Sundays. The restaurant is BYOB and the staff will concoct delicious Latin cocktails and a terrific tropical sangria for your table. But if you want to sample the essence of Latin America’s rich beverage tradition, look at the last page of the menu and choose from a broad selection of non-alcoholic drinks: fizzy Cuban chicha and Mexican tepache (fermented drinks made with pineapple peel), nutty horchata (a milky almond drink), fruity, deep purple corn chicha made from a special Peruvian corn, refreshing, slightly tart Costa Rican sorrel (hibiscus) punch, the house’s special frozen Ecuadorian-inspired limeade (one of Maricel’s signature creations), and the best spiced hot chocolate around, made with rich and complex Venezuelan chocolate.

Zafra is a busy little place. It offers take-out food and does catering for small or large parties. For such a small place, Zafra has attracted remarkable attention. It was rated Excellent by the New York Times, which is equivalent to a three-star rating in neighboring Manhattan, and has obtained high marks from all New Jersey publications and the Zagat survey. In 2005, the late R.W. Apple wrote a two-page feature article about Zafra and its sister restaurant Cucharamama in the New York Times. It was the greatest compliment Maricel and Clara could had hoped to obtain for their tiny Zafra. In his honor, they have dubbed a sampling-portion combination of fresh Cuban tamal, Cuban beef hash, and rice with black beans, “The Full Apple.”

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