By Shana Liebman —
Sleepy Hollow is home to great traditional Spanish and Latin restaurants — which is why Croquetería may have slipped under your radar. Another reason why locals might not know about this family-run Cuban gem is that it bravely opened in October 2020, during the height of the pandemic. It’s also a very quiet place, with a subtle yet modern black and white décor and a small blackboard menu.
But this newly renovated corner café (located at 166 Cortlandt Street in Sleepy Hollow) is a place that you should know about, because — croquettes. They melt in your mouth and haunt your cravings. The small bite-sized logs are lightly breaded and fried to order, so they arrive crispy and hot with a silky, savory middle. The creamy béchamel (see recipe below) is mixed with seasonal fillings—ham, chicken, cheese, salted cod, crab, spinach and cheese, mushrooms, ropa vieja, black beans and even pumpkin.
Although croquettes have yet to take off in America, these originally French appetizers are wildly popular in Cuba. According to Cuban-born blogger (“A Sassy Spoon”) Jamie Silva, “Growing up in a Cuban family, you’re pretty much eating croquetas de jamón since birth.”
But Croquetería, despite its name, also considers itself the “home of the real Cuban sandwich” (as written on their storefront awning). And their made-to-order, perfectly pressed Cuban is made with love—along with daily-roasted mojo pork, sweet ham, spicy mustard and fresh pickle. The crispy sandwich wrapped in faux newspaper is the best in town. “What makes our recipe authentic is that we cook here at our restaurant the same way we cook at home — which is how our family has been cooking for generations,” Pablo Zequeira, whose parents are the owners and chefs at Croquetería, explains.
Pablo’s father, Carlos Zequeira, modeled his Cubans on the ones he ate when his grandmother took him to the movies every weekend in Havana. “Next to the theater there would be an American-styled cafeteria and that was the only place where you could find the Cuban sandwich (in Cuba it is only called sandwich and all other sandwiches in Cuba would be called
Another Cuban staple at Croquetería is ropa vieja — which appears in both a croquette and a sandwich. “There are few dishes as quintessentially Cuban as ropa vieja, which translates to ‘old clothes’ in Spanish,” explains food writer Taryn Pire, who describes the dish as a shredded beef stew often served with black beans and rice.
“We have had it at our family table since I was a small boy,” Pablos says. “But even customers who know what ropa vieja is have never heard of the sandwich.”
This juicy shredded-beef sandwich on pressed bread — and all of Croquetería’s homey finger food, from the fresh avocado sandwich to the meaty crab croquette — belong at zestful gatherings of friends and family. And this makes sense because that is how Carlos and his wife, Niurka Guirola Zequeira, started cooking.
Before Croquetería, Carlos (a writer who left Cuba with a book of banned poems) and Niurka (an editor and art school graduate) ran a Cuban art magazine and published Cuban authors. They also cooked for the literary events that they hosted, where Carlos says, “people came for the croquetas and not for the ‘art.’” The couple soon turned to catering and eventually to this mostly take-out café placed strategically in a neighborhood full of Spanish-speaking neighbors (on Cortlandt Street at Depeyster).
In addition to the elderly Cubans who stop by to gossip with Carlos about the old country, fans from all over Westchester (and beyond) have started making regular visits to the small cafe — in the morning for the strong Cuban coffee, and later for the sandwiches and croquettes. The menu varies daily (they are open Wednesdays-Sundays) and can be limited midweek. Also, Croquetería might close early — if, say, they run out of bread. But once word gets out about this place, the chefs are going to have to restock more often — and maybe find a cousin or two to help fry up those luscious croquettes.
RECIPE: BECHAMEL SAUCE (FOR CROQUETAS)
This béchamel sauce, which originated in France and made its way to Spain and then to Cuba, is a crucial part of Cuban cuisine. It’s also the base for Croquetería’s traditional croquetas.
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
a pinch of salt
a pinch of black pepper
Optional additions: ham, chicken, cod, spinach, mushroom — or anything else you choose
1. Melt butter in a small saucepan and then mix in flour. In another saucepan, heat the milk over medium until it warms, then lower the heat.
2. Slowly combine the butter and flour mixture with the warm milk, whisking constantly for about 4 or 5 minutes, until the color is golden and the sauce has thickened. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Continue to whisk until the sauce starts to separate from from the pan.
3. Add other ingredients as desired. Mix with the béchamel. Let it cool.