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Casa Vasca -- Great Basque food in Newark

b
Brian S Oct 19, 2005 07:28 PM

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.

Image: http://content.answers.com/main/conte...

  1. j
    JB Oct 19, 2005 08:36 PM

    Brian--Did you have to give away this secret? It was already hard enough to get a table at Casa Vasca, which is my absolute favorite in that area. I guess that, in the interest of full disclosure, you had to do it, but I wish that you had not remarked about this gem!

    3 Replies
    1. re: JB
      m
      Mark DiBlasi Oct 20, 2005 10:50 AM

      Despite the name, none of the food there is not really Basque at all, with the very slim exception of the green sauce fish, which is usually described as "Basque style" on Ameri/spanish menus.

      Unfortunately, the word "Basque" or "Vasca" is used by lots of Spanish restaurants in the US to give them an aura of gourmet authenticity, kind of the way "Contiental" was used by restaurants 30 years ago.

      The items you've described are not typical of Basque food, and I've never found a place in the Ironbound (including Casa Vasca) which serves anything remotely Basque.

      That's not to say the food isn't good. Just not Basque.

      1. re: Mark DiBlasi
        b
        Brian S Oct 20, 2005 12:04 PM

        You're right that the food is not traditional Basque. A lot of it is classic French, especially the sauces. But, though I haven't been there, I've read that a lot of the top restaurants in San Sebastian, such as Arzak, as well as top Madrid restaurants run by Basques, such as Zalacain, have chefs trained in France who use classic French techniques. I believe that the owner of Case Vasca is Basque, and I'm pretty sure I heard her speaking Basque with a patron. In fact, all of the patrons, I believe, are from northern Spain...not necessarily the Basque part, but Gailicia also. (And some of the soups are similar to Gailician Caldo Gallego)

        1. re: Brian S
          c
          Chas B Oct 20, 2005 01:12 PM

          Brian I believe that I might know you and if so please email me at the above address OK? Chas

    2. Brian S Nov 22, 2006 02:05 AM

      I've been back to Casa Vasca twice this month and I'm pleased to report that the food is as good as ever.... maybe better. Tonight I wasn't keen on any of the specials on the blackboard... and then I found out that they had so many specials that they wouldn't all fit on the blackboard! They had a list written down, and on that list was one of my faves, zarzuela. Zarzuela is a comic operetta... but it's also the name of a superb seafood dish: scallops, shrimp (about 30 of them, not huge but not tiny), clam, mussels, and a fish steak served in a metal ramekin as big as a bucket and covered with almost a quart of an incredibly good sauce made with white wine.

      A few weeks ago I ate monkfish in sherry sauce. Three monkfish steaks, about 20 shrimp, and lots of yummy mushrooms, with a delicious sauce made from sherry and buckets of cream (a lot like a classic French sauce), enough of it to fill the serving platter, which was essentially a three inch deep bucket). Like the Zarzuela, it was $14, rice and soup and tax included, and that was the most expensive special.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Brian S
        a
        albinoni Nov 22, 2006 06:10 PM

        Thanks for the update. So many restaurants in the Ironbound serve humongous quantities of mediocre food, or once were good and have gone downhill. Without a scorecard, it's impossible to know where to go. Where is Casa Vasca located?

        Charlie

        1. re: albinoni
          Brian S Nov 22, 2006 10:52 PM

          141 Elm St
          (973) 465-1350

          It's two blocks from Ferry; you turn on the street (Prospect?) right near Sagres and the big new Iberia restaurant. The most important thing for me is that it's a 5 minute walk from PATH... because I come from NYC just to eat there.

          1. re: Brian S
            Ike Nov 30, 2006 07:50 PM

            Just to clarify the distance, I would say it's more like a 12-to-15-minute walk from the PATH (at Newark Penn Station). Unless you walk at a really really fast pace, like me. But I'm not sure even *I* could do it in five minutes. Well, maybe.

      2. junglekitte Nov 24, 2006 10:12 PM

        i finally gave this restaurant a try as per this recommendation and another friend.
        we didn't eat in the bar area and order off the black board menu like was recommended(i insisted but my friends disagreed)
        the waiter told me it all was the same food anyway...so i didn't feel so terrible about it.

        sorry, brian, but i really don't know what is so great about this restaurant. the free soup they gave was delicious...and the potato chips. very good. but everything else i would dare to call mediocre. :O the mixed grill, the fish in green sauce was downright flavorless and i detected the fish was previously frozen, and another dish we ordered i can't think of. all just barely edible. i would definitely not try this restaurant again. :/

        8 Replies
        1. re: junglekitte
          Brian S Nov 30, 2006 02:02 AM

          I'm really sorry about this! As soon as I read it, I went to the PATH train to check it out. I had monkfish a la marinera. The fish wes fresh and flavorful. I didn't like the sauce, until I realized it was a dipping sauce to bring out the flavor of the fish, not something to be eaten by the spoonful. Then I liked it, though I preferred the wine sauce. But it's still one of my favorite restaurants.

          Junglekitte I don't think you should try it again because I'd be heartbroken if you went and didn't like it again. But now that you know how easy it is to get to Newark, you should return to the Ironbound and explore. On a nice day it's a great place to walk. Stroll down Ferry. The places most outsiders never find are past the point where you get to a Lutheran Church and Ferry makes a sharp left, with Wilson Street continuing where Ferry should be. Years ago I found smoky bars with great food, full of Portuguese workers relaxing after a day on the job. I've heard Poeta and Tony de Caneca are good. But me, I'll stick with Casa Vasca.

          1. re: Brian S
            r
            RGR Nov 30, 2006 11:02 PM

            My experiences at Tony da Caneca have been somewhat inconsistent. Two meals where the food was delicious followed by a meal where the food was mediocre. This was a few years ago, and I haven't been tempted to return.

            1. re: Brian S
              Ike Dec 1, 2006 04:15 PM

              Note that Poeta is closed, according to this thread:

              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/307281

              On that street, for something a little different from all the Spanish/Portuguese, Sietsema of the Village Voice gave a Brazilian place, Tapajos River Steakhouse, a very strong review a couple of years ago, and it has fish too (the muqueca sounds great). I don't always agree with Sietsema though, and I have yet to try it... but I intend to, at least eventually. (I hope it's still there!

              )

              http://www.villagevoice.com/nyclife/0...

              1. re: Brian S
                j
                Jambalaya Dec 2, 2006 04:30 PM

                All this sounds fantastic. I get to Newark once a year on an overnight stay while picking up a flight to St. Martin (its the only way I can get frequent flier seats from Cleve on Continental) and have always wanted to try the Ironbound district. For someone now becoming a little more familiar with the area please let me know where I should walk coming out of Newark Penn Station to explore this area around dinner time.

                Thanks

              2. re: junglekitte
                Ike Nov 30, 2006 07:56 PM

                Junglekitte, normally I would say you'd gone on an off night, but y'know, I don't think I've ever encountered an off night there; and also, the big dog doesn't like CV either (yes, I know, he always says that his opinion isn't very important... bah, humburger!). Maybe Casa Vasca just isn't to your taste. Everyone's mileage varies for any restaurant, but maybe moreso at CV than many others. Is there anything in the Ironbound you like better? (Ever been to Seabra's Marisquieria? I'd say that's very good and different from CV.) Is there any Spanish restaurant you love?

                On the other hand, I notice you posted on the day after Thanksgiving. Maybe all the cooks drank too much Dos Equis with their turkey and were horribly hung over? 8^) Nah, probably not.

                I looooooooooooooove their soups.

                So many people recommend eating while sitting at the bar. I've never eaten at the bar. I like the dining room and the food is still tremendously good in there. If it's actually better at the bar, then it must be heavenly. Plus, I sometimes order off the menu, though just shrimp dishes, generally.

                Say, is Casa Vasca as crowded as ever? I haven't been for several months. I haven't found anything else in Newark that I like better than Casa Vasca. Nada, zip.

                1. re: Ike
                  junglekitte Nov 30, 2006 09:26 PM

                  i actually haven't tried any other restaurant in the ironbound yet! i wanted to try seabra's but the friend driving wanted to go to CV and i remembered brian speaking so highly of it we decided on that. i do like spanish food. my favorite spanish restaurant is Jaleo in Washington DC. YUM! it could just not be to my taste...but if i ever get the chance (so many restaurants to try, so little time) i will try it again. don't worry i won't blame you, brian. ;)

                  CV was completely full the night we went but we were seated right away.

                2. re: junglekitte
                  Brian S Sep 25, 2007 05:40 PM

                  I've finally figured out why you had a bad meal there when I have had nothing but wonderful meals. I went in late August for my first visit in 9 months... and it was lousy! I went back the next week to a wonderful meal, described below, and was told that on my prior visit, Maria the owner was on vacation in Spain. I found out sometime last year that Maria was also in Spain that week in November when you went. Her son was getting married, the wedding was in Bilbao. So the moral is, go only when she is there. But she takes off only one week a year.

                  1. re: Brian S
                    junglekitte Sep 27, 2007 12:32 PM

                    thats so sad the day i finally got myself all the way out there she was gone! i'll be happy to give it another try because you said so, brian!:)

                3. a
                  aladdnzane Nov 26, 2006 06:11 AM

                  Well I'll chime in here. I read the posts on Casa Vasca and was heading into Ironbound with my fiance for dinner. We are usually Iberia people and have been going there for years but she is a real fish person and I wasnt up for Rodizzo so off we went. We sat at a table in the bar as people recommended which was somewhat confusing to me because the blackboard specials are also on a printed list which looked distributed to all tables in the bar and the restaurant room as well. So I dont know if this has changed or not. We started with a great potato and leek Soup, had some garlic shrimp and then moved onto the main course. She had stuffed squid in squid ink and she loved every minutte of it. I had lobster in spicy sauce with peppers and onions and it was very good. We had a great time, it was a very relaxed pace and they never hurried us as we were having a grand time with the sangria. I want to thank all the people who recommended it and we cant wait to go back again.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: aladdnzane
                    Brian S Nov 30, 2006 02:03 AM

                    I'm glad you liked Casa Vasca. Iberia was the first restaurant I went to in the Ironbound, and it never disappointed me, though I prefer Casa Vasca.

                  2. Brian S Sep 25, 2007 05:35 PM

                    I've made several visits to Casa Vasca this year, all within the past month, and I am pleased to report it's as extraordinary as ever. I've just gotten back from there now! I had a zarzuela, which is a kind of Spanish light opera but also means a seafood mix. Tonight it was succulent scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels and a monkfish steak all afloat in well over a quart of a delicious sauce made with white wine. I think I was supposed to pour most of the sauce over my rice. What a waste! I ate it like a soup, every drop, and it was excellent. The wonderful yellow rice I ate plain.

                    The time before was even better! Four small veal fillets, totalling about a pound of meat, were pounded thin, coated with a thin batter rich in egg and cheese, sauteed a la meuniere, and covered with an incredible sauce made with heavy cream, sherry, and broccoli rabe.

                    Both meals were $14 each, including tax, rice and a hearty soup... oh and wonderful crusty rolls too.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Brian S
                      Curlz Sep 25, 2007 06:42 PM

                      So pleased to see so many raves for my favorite spot in the Ironbound, but one important thing that Brian hasn't mentioned (understandably--he takes the train in to Newark) is that CV has its own parking lot! It's on Prospect, just before you get to the corner of Elm, where CV is located. Big lit sign--can't miss it. Turn in, and the same guy who has been there for at least a decade will direct you in to a spot! Give him a buck and say Gracias, and you're set. Of course, now I need to get over there...thanks for lighting up that craving, Brian! :-)

                      1. re: Curlz
                        Brian S Sep 26, 2007 10:07 AM

                        You're welcome. I am already planning my next trip.

                        -----
                        Casa Vasca
                        141 Elm St, Newark, NJ 07105

                    2. j
                      jsisto Nov 19, 2008 09:37 PM

                      My cousin Mili and her husband Avelino used to own Casa Vasca. After Avelino died, Mili sold it to her partner (maybe Maria? I'm not sure who...) and moved back to Bilbao. Perhaps the food can't be considered true Basque, but I can vouch that the owners/founders were indeed Basque.

                      We used to go there when I was a kid for big family meals. My grandpa Pepe used to hang out at the bar with all the other old Spanish men. I still dream of their Mariscada. Wish we could get traditional Spanish food like that in SF...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: jsisto
                        Brian S Aug 27, 2009 09:43 AM

                        And I wish I could get this food in Tulsa! Your family sure created a wonderful place! A lot of Basque immigrants settled in California though, and if you try the California boards you could find great stuff like this:
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/340247

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