Author Archive | Anthony Ewing

SOUR, BITTER AND SPICY

In Jersey, good Lao food is
hard to find—except in Maywood

Photography by Clay Williams

sourBItter

A prominent notice on the menu and
specials whiteboard warns customers
about the spicy dishes—you can specify
a spice level from one to five. If you ask
for number three or higher, and you
haven’t visited before, Samlane will visit
your table just to make sure you know
what you are in for.

When Samlane Sysounthone welcomes you, don’t be fooled by her broad smile. Behind that sweet, grandmotherly greeting is a chef who delivers a powerful cuisine unlike anything else in New Jersey.

Samlane and her husband Soubanh do the cooking at Pho Thai- Lao Kitchen in Maywood, the only New Jersey restaurant I have found devoted to Lao cuisine. The Lao region of Southeast Asia straddles the Mekong River in Laos and northeastern Thailand.

Soubanh is from the Laotian capital Vientiane, while Samlane is from the Isaan region of Thailand, where the couple met and married. The cuisine of Laos is distinct from the food of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Less sweet than most Thai cooking and more assertive than many Vietnamese dishes, Lao cooking embraces sour, bitter and spicy flavors, featuring citrusy galangal (a ginger-like rhizome); green herbs like lemongrass, cilantro and mint; fiery Thai chilies; and pungent fermented fish sauce.

Soubanh and Samlane emigrated in 1980 with their five children to northern New Jersey, where they began catering events at Thai temples in Bergen County. New Jersey’s Lao population is relatively small and Lao restaurants are difficult to find east of the Mississippi. So with the help of family members—their son Chandara and daughter-in-law Achara are the owners—the Sysounthones opened their first restaurant in Maywood in June 2011.

In a narrow corner building just off Route 80 on Maywood Avenue, Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen’s small dining room has only 14 tables. Look for the white sign outside with “Pho” on a yellow leaf. Inside, colorful decorations represent a mix of Thai and Lao culture. Service is unhurried and very friendly. Feel free to ask questions. In the tiny kitchen behind the dining room, Soubanh mans the grill while Samlane works her magic with fresh ingredients. “All of her recipes she learned from her grandmother,” Soubanh points out. Samlane makes all the sauces and marinades from scratch, including a noteworthy fermented fish sauce that gives many Lao dishes their punch. Many preparations are time-consuming. The wonderful sour fish (pla som), for example, is washed ten times as it marinates and pickles.

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Left: Homemade spice paste; Right: Pla som tod

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Thai coconut pudding

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Thai soup

The Pho Thai-Lao menu lists appetizers and noodle soups, and has separate Thai and Lao sections. The Thai dishes, like pad thai and red or green curry, are prepared with less sugar and coconut milk than you may be accustomed to at other Thai restaurants. Tom yum, as an appetizer or main course, is an intensely spicy, sour and salty soup flavored with lemon leaf and lemongrass. Kaffir lime gives the beef noodle soup—a steaming bowl of Vietnamese-style pho filled with meatballs, beef slices and thin rice noodles—a lovely sour tang. When my family visits, I seek out unusual Lao items from the menu or specials board. The Lao dishes emphasize sour over sweet, and do not feature coconut milk. Try a Lao crepe of chicken and bean sprouts with crispy rice flour and rice noodles. Many plates, like the papaya salad (som tum), are served at room temperature.

The crispy fried rice with pork sausage (nam khao), to be scooped up with lettuce leaves, is a crunchy rice–lover’s dream, flavored with peanuts, scallions, mint, cilantro, chilies, lime and Samlane’s fish sauce. Any of the spicy-sour larb dishes with meat or fish deliver the spectrum of Lao flavors. Larb uer, chopped morsels of beef and tripe with plenty of scallions, is an excellent introduction. Other Lao menu items include gob kratiem (crispy frogs’ legs in garlic sauce) and e-saan “fermented” spare ribs or sausage. The dish that really stands out, however, is pla som tod, a grilled whole red snapper “pickled” in Lao fish sauce and salt, presented on a bed of sautéed onions, garlic and vegetables. Every bite delivers an explosive salty-sour flavor unlike any fish I have tasted. The numbing effects on the tongue call to mind the sensations triggered by fiery Szechuan peppercorns. Most dishes come with sticky rice, served in distinctive individual steamer baskets. Traditionally, Lao diners eat sticky rice by hand. You don’t have to.

Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen is the place to go if you enjoy spicy food the way it is served in Southeast Asia: at the upper reaches of the Scoville scale. A prominent notice on the menu and specials whiteboard warns customers about the spicy dishes—you can specify a spice level from one (“like Tabasco sauce”) to five (“hot as the infamous ghost pepper”). If you ask for number three or higher, and you haven’t visited before, Samlane will visit your table just to make sure you know what you are in for. “I have to double-check so the dish doesn’t come back to the kitchen,” she says. Spice level zero is an option, but starred menu items go no lower than one. I love spicy food and level two is all I can manage here. A level-one green curry chicken here might be considered very spicy at more Americanized Thai restaurants. On one visit, a very helpful server suggested a “1.5” spice selection to apprehensive diners. A glass of sweet Thai iced tea with condensed milk can help sensitive taste buds recover.

The precisely calibrated spiciness comes from fresh, dried and powdered Thai chilies. Every August, the Sysounthones head to a farm in South Jersey to collect 500 pounds of fresh chilies, of two varieties grown from imported Thai seeds, that they will use for the rest of the year.

For dessert, there is Thai coconut pudding (kanom krok), little rice-flour-and-coconut sweet custards cooked individually in a castiron skillet, topped with scallions. They are a little sweet, but mostly savory, and unlike anything you are used to—an apt description for Samlane’s recipes and the powerful flavors of Lao food.

Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen
219 Maywood Ave., Maywood
201.712.0700
phothailao.com

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ROAD FOOD

 

Dining stops worth making along I-95

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Photographs: Anthony Ewing

The 225-mile stretch of interstate highway that connects New York City to Washington, DC, is one of the most heavily traveled roadways in the country. So when Edible Jersey asked me to find the most memorable eats along I-95, I faced two dilemmas—picking the food and navigating the traffic.

Anyone who drives this particular portion of the I-95 corridor—which continues north to New England and south to Florida—knows how frustrating this highway can be. Sections have been “under construction” since it was designated an interstate in 1957. Traffic jams materialize out of nowhere, turning a four-hour trip into a six-hour odyssey, or worse on holiday weekends. Then there is an inexplicable gap where I-95 disappears entirely between Exit 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1 in Mercer County before resurfacing to cross the Delaware in Ewing Township.

In fact, I-95 will not be officially completed until a planned interchange connects the Pennsylvania Turnpike with I-95 north of Philadelphia, extending I-95 to Exit 6 of the New Jersey Turnpike. I have traveled I-95 in both directions for years, from Jersey to Maine to Miami and back. In August, I made the pilgrimage to DC to drop my oldest daughter off for her first year of college.

I’ll be making the trip often in the next few years, so this assignment was a nice excuse to stop and eat along the way. But where are the worthy stops? How could anyone possibly narrow down the hundreds of food options along the route?

I set some rules. Eight of the ten local restaurants below are less than three miles from an I-95 exit. (Cranbury Pizza and Keren Restaurant are a little farther.) I avoided upscale, expensive places—this is a road trip after all. I picked eateries worth stopping for, because of either the quality of their food or the flavor of their local character, and I tried to choose a wide range of cuisines. Every restaurant is open for lunch, all but one (John’s) for dinner, and a few serve breakfast. Check online for current hours of operation before you pull off the highway.

This Edible road trip starts above the Hudson River in the middle of the George Washington Bridge. We have left Upper Manhattan behind and are heading west and then south.

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1 SOFT TOFU RESTAURANT (SO KONG DONG) (Exit 72B)
130 Main St., Fort Lee, NJ
201.242.0026
Open for lunch and dinner

We have barely breached the New Jersey Palisades, but it is already time to eat. We take the exit into Fort Lee, the heart of Bergen County’s large Korean community. We need something cheap and fortifying for the journey ahead, so let’s stop for soft tofu stew (soondubu jjigae) and Korean BBQ short ribs (kalbi) at Soft Tofu Restaurant on Main Street. We place our order while waiting on line for a table at this very popular local restaurant. The stew varieties include beef, pork and seafood. Every bowl can be ordered “white” (mild), medium, spicy or very spicy. Spicy works for my bowl of beef and kimchi. For only $10 a bowl, we get traditional banchan (small plates of bean sprouts, kimchi and spicy pickles) and a heaping bowl of rice for the table. Then come the steaming, piping-hot porcelain pots of silken tofu. Crack a raw egg in the bowl to thicken the bubbling broth flavored with dried anchovies, sea kelp and Korean red pepper. We use the meat scissors to cut up our slab of sweet grilled short ribs.

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2 TOMMY’S ITALIAN SAUSAGE & HOT DOGS (Exit 13A)
900 Second Ave., Elizabeth, NJ
908.351.9831
Open for lunch and dinner

Our next stop is in Elizabeth, New Jersey’s fourth-largest city. During the Revolutionary War, British troops attacked “Elizabethtown” by crossing the ice from Staten Island. Our approach is much easier: All we need to do is drive past Newark Airport. We decide to stop at Tommy’s for a classic only-in-Jersey food, the Italian hot dog. They were first served in Newark in the 1930s—a half-round soft pizza roll slathered with spicy mustard and filled with a deep-fried hot dog (or two, or three, or a sausage if you’re hungry), grilled peppers, onions and sliced potatoes. At Tommy’s, a takeout-only window that has been serving dogs in the same location since 1969, the deep-fried potatoes are the main attraction. They are so good we can order “potatoes in a cup” by themselves. An Italian hot dog is much messier than your average hot dog. I suggest we stretch our legs and finish ours on one of the benches in the tiny triangular park across the street.

3 CRANBURY PIZZA (Exit 8A)
63 N. Main St., Cranbury, NJ
609.409.9930
Open for lunch and dinner

At Exit 8A, former site of the turnpike’s infamous car- and trucklane merge, we escape the traffic to visit one of New Jersey’s oldest towns for New Jersey-style pizza. Cranbury Pizza occupies a small storefront on Main Street in the historic 19th-century village center. Quintessential New Jersey-style pizza, for me, is a straightforward round pie with a flavorful, chewy crust, thick at the edges, that holds its shape when you fold a slice—nothing too fancy, too saucy or too floppy. The pies that emerge from Cranbury’s brick oven are excellent examples. The crust, neither too thin nor too thick, has nice chewiness around the edge with good flavor. Like the charming town, the brick oven behind the counter looks pretty old, always a good sign for producing a flavorful crust. The plain cheese pie has a nice sauceto- cheese balance. The tomato sauce is on the salty side, just the way I like it. We can buy a pie, or pizza by the slice.

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4 RESTAURANTE EL MARIACHI (Exit 7A)
762 Roebling Ave., Trenton, NJ
609.393.0035
Open for lunch and dinner

At Exit 7A, we confront the infamous and often confounding Interstate 95 Gap. Here the New Jersey Turnpike continues, but it is no longer called Interstate 95. To get back on 95, we will need to head west toward Trenton, which gives us a great excuse to stop for some good tacos. We take I-195 west and Route 29 (Exit 60B) along the Delaware straight into Trenton’s historic Chambersburg neighborhood for authentic Guatemalan fare at Restaurante El Mariachi. This part of the city used to be filled with Italian food. A few Trenton institutions, like De Lorenzo’s Tomato Pies (2350 Rte. 33, Robbinsville, NJ), have moved out of the city into the Mercer County suburbs. Immigrant entrepreneurs are filling the gaps.

The unmarked corner building housing El Mariachi used to be the Italian restaurant La Gondola, which explains the mural of Venice that remains on one wall of the dining room. Look for the neon “Open” sign under an orange tile roof. Inside, delicious handmade corn tortillas are bigger and thicker than your average Mexican tortilla. An order of grilled steak, tongue, pork or chicken tacos is easily dinner—served with a roasted scallion, sliced cucumbers, salad and avocado. A plate of three cheese-filled pupusas (stuffed tortillas) covered with shredded cabbage slaw is the equivalent of four grilled cheese sandwiches at most diners, … Read More

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KABOBS AND PLOV

In Manalapan, Shirin Cafe serves up
one of Jersey’s rarest cuisines: Uzbek

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Photography by Thomas Robert Clarke

W hen Albert and Marina Sevumyants married in the Central Asian capital of Tashkent 34 years ago, Marina only knew how to bake a few traditional pastries, like baklava and honey cake. Albert, on the other hand, had learned from his father to grill meat kebabs and make some of the hearty soups and rice dishes popular in Uzbekistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, just north of Afghanistan.

“Every Uzbek guy can cook,” Albert proclaims. So as a young bride, Marina had some catching up to do. She quickly expanded her repertoire of traditional Uzbek, Armenian and Russian dishes, learning the recipes alongside her mother and mother-in-law. One of the first dishes she learned how to make was borscht, the rich Ukrainian beet soup enjoyed throughout the region.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became an independent state in 1991. Many Central Asians had the opportunity to emigrate for the first time. The Sevumyants family, with two teenage boys, left Tashkent for Cleveland in 1996, where one of Albert’s cousins lived. “We left so we could feel more free, and not worry about tomorrow,” Marina says. A few years later, the Sevumyants family moved to Monmouth County, New Jersey, where friends from Tashkent had settled.

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Albert and Marina Sevumyants

Uzbek cuisine features grilled meats,
hearty soups, savory pastries, and rice dishes
spiced with cumin and coriander.

By then, with a third son born in the United States, Marina had become a confident and skilled cook. Such a good cook, in fact, that she and Albert decided to open a restaurant.

In 2000, Albert and Marina opened Rendezvous, a restaurant and banquet hall in Manalapan, complete with live Russian-language music and dancing, in the style of the exuberant Russian nightclubs of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The menu mixed some Uzbek dishes with typical Russian banquet food. Despite having no previous experience in the restaurant business, the Sevumyantses made Rendezvous a popular destination for the immigrant Russian-language communities of New Jersey.

After seven years of running Rendezvous, Albert and Marina began looking for a smaller spot where they could focus on the food and showcase Marina’s recipes. On a tip from Marina’s hairdresser, they found a location in a nearby Manalapan shopping plaza. The Sevumyantses sold Rendezvous and opened Shirin Cafe in 2007. Shirin, according to Marina, is an Uzbek and Armenian word that means “sweetie.”

“It was a good decision” to open a restaurant, Marina says, “but it is very hard work.”

Shirin Cafe occupies a small storefront next to a salon and across from a Japanese restaurant. A small sign out front advertises “Uzbek & Russian Cuisine.” The first thing that draws your attention upon entering the café are two large dolls in traditional wedding dress. The counter below them displays a collection of colorfully dressed Uzbek figurines. The café can accommodate around 40 people at ten tables. The dining room is simple, nothing fancy. The room’s two televisions are often tuned to Russian music videos.

“If you want live music and dancing, there are other places,” Albert says. “If you want food that reminds you of where you grew up, you come here.”

While there are a number of places in New Jersey that serve Russian cuisine, Shirin Cafe is one of the only restaurants in the state featuring Uzbek. Customers come from as far away as Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Queens, where there are larger communities of Uzbek immigrants, to sample the Sevumyantses’ menu. That menu reflects the varied cultural influences in the Sevumyantses’ life. Russian menu items include vareniki (potato pierogi, served with carmelized onions and sour cream) and chuchvara (tiny meat dumplings, boiled or fried). Marina and Albert also serve an Armenian red bean salad with diced basturma (pastrami), fried onions, garlic, and crushed walnuts; and Armenian dolma (stuffed grape leaves).

Meals at Shirin usually start with a pot of Uzbek loose-leaf tea, black or green, served in a brightly painted teapot and short teacups without handles, as is customary throughout Central Asia. Don’t miss the homemade Uzbek bread (non) served warm, a round flat loaf, depressed in the center and dotted with sesame seeds.

Uzbek cuisine features grilled meats, hearty soups, savory pastries, and rice dishes spiced with cumin and coriander. Lamb (or traditionally mutton) dishes are common. Plov is the most popular Uzbek dish at Shirin. Similar to a Spanish paella, it is composed of Uzbek rice cooked with chunks of beef and lamb, shredded carrots, scallions and spices. The secret to a proper plov, according to the Sevumyantses, is the exact proportion of water to rice, so that every grain remains separate. “Too much water, you end up with a porridge, too little, the rice is undercooked,” affirms Albert. He and Marina searched for almost a year before they found a source of imported rice that produced the right consistency. The right cumin was also difficult to find in New Jersey—the available supermarket versions didn’t taste like the Uzbek version they knew. Marina loves New Jersey tomatoes, however, which she says taste and smell like the best tomatoes she grew up with.

Try one of the excellent soups from Marina’s kitchen, like mastava, with fatty lamb pieces, rice and vegetables spiced with cumin, from Turkey. Chebureki are fried turnovers filled with juicy minced meat and onions. Order ahead for Marina’s homemade samsa, puff pastry stuffed with meat and onion or pumpkin, and manti, large steamed lamb dumplings, which take 45 minutes to prepare.

When I visited with my family, my daughter Gabi’s jaw dropped when she saw the size of the pork kebab. Shirin’s grilled kebabs (ten different kinds, including lamb, veal liver, quail, chicken and pork), offer very large pieces of marinated meat grilled on impressively long metal skewers. They are served under strings of cooked onions with a tomato-based dipping sauce.

And save room for Marina’s homemade pastries. The friendly servers will bring an impressive tray displaying each kind to help you decide among the Armenian pakhlava, a decadent kartoshka made from cocoa powder and crushed pecans (my daughter’s favorite), or the delicate honey cake from Marina’s childhood.

After all these years, Albert concedes that Marina is now the better cook, though he still makes the kebabs.

LANDLOCKED

Seafood does not figure prominently in Uzbek cuisine. Not only is Uzbek landlocked on all sides, it’s also completely surrounded by landlocked countries, making it one of only two “doubly landlocked” nations in the world (the other is Liechtenstein). The closest coastline to Tashkent is more than 1,000 miles away. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Marina Sevumyants has a fondness for fresh fish

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THE SILK ROAD

Many cultures have shaped Uzbek cuisine. Tashkent is an ancient city on the Silk Road trade route that for centuries connected China with the Middle East. As a result of this cultural exchange, flavors from Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet can all be found in Uzbek cooking. Albert and Marina’s family roots include Armenian and Jewish branches, which are also reflected in the diverse food they grew up with.

Shirin Cafe
345 Rte. 9 South, Manalapan … Read More

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EATING IN RAMSEY

Farm-to-table and a horse above
a door in northwest Bergen County

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Lobster gyros, cucumber tomato relish and mint tzatziki at Varka

BY ANTHONY EWING PHOTOGRAPHY BY KENT FAIRFIELD

“Don’t buy food from strangers,” advises a painting on the wall of Local Seasonal Kitchen. This sentiment permeates the burgeoning food scene in the borough of Ramsey, nestled in northwest Bergen County between Route 17 and the Ramapo River Valley.

From the (almost) year-round farmers’ market, to local chefs committed to farm-to-table cuisine, to the tavern where families have gathered for generations, in Ramsey it’s easy to know who is making, and growing, your food.

Ramsey, population 14,500, has a small-town feel despite its location 25 miles from downtown Manhattan in New Jersey’s most populous county. Just west of Route 17, Ramsey High School overlooks the compact downtown business district where there are still no parking meters on Main Street. The town covers six square miles between Wyckoff and Allendale to the south, and Mahwah and Upper Saddle River to the north, which separate Ramsey from the New York state line.

Like the Ramapo River that fl ows into New Jersey from Orange and Rockland counties in New York, many Hudson Valley farmers send their harvest across the Jersey border to the Ramsey Farmers Market. Launched in 2010 by the Ramsey Historical Association at the Erie Plaza NJ Transit train station, the popular Sunday market draws some 40 vendors from New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, including Blooming Hill Farm (Blooming Grove, New York), Matarazzo Farms (North Caldwell) and the Montclair Bread Company. At the market, you can fi nd fresh fruits and vegetables; homemade pastas, breads and sauces; and local eggs, honey and pickles, among other artisanal foods. Plus lots of free parking. In the winter, the market relocates inside to the Eric Smith School on North Central Avenue. With its mix of established and new food artisans and an impressive roster of regional farms, the farmers’ market has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best in Bergen County.

“Our market has evolved into a routine Sunday destination, where people have the opportunity to meet local farmers and food purveyors, try different produce and foods and ask questions,” says market manager Nancy Boone. “We want our community of vendors and market-goers to feel that the Ramsey Farmers Market is really their market.”

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Chef Kevin Kohler of Café Panache

Within a quarter-mile radius of the train station, Ramsey boasts one restaurant consistently ranked among the state’s best (Café Panache), another that tops the rankings for seafood and Mediterranean cuisine (Varka Estiatorio) and a third earning praise statewide as a notable new restaurant (Local Seasonal Kitchen).

Café Panache, a well-respected, upscale establishment in the center of downtown Ramsey, has been serving a farm-to-table menu since before there was a label for restaurant cooking inspired by seasonal ingredients. For 28 years, chef-owner Kevin Kohler has crafted his menu based on the freshest locally available food. He harvests produce himself at nearby Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff, and diners can enjoy a constantly changing menu of dishes like chilled gazpacho soup with Abma’s heirloom farm tomatoes, crispy confit duckling rare roasted breast in a Jersey peach purée, and prime sirloin steak with Abma’s garlic and soy reduction, served in an elegant white-tablecloth dining room with tall windows facing Main Street.

Across the street and around the corner on North Spruce Street, fine diners can splurge on pristine seafood and Mediterranean specialties at Varka Estiatorio, a Greek “fish house” that opened in 2005. Grilled octopus, whole fish, stuffed grilled calamari and the Greek spreads from executive chef George Georgiades get rave reviews. Varka has an active bar scene and an extensive wine list. You can sit on the patio in the spring and summer. Watch out for flying tables, though, since Varka has already appeared a few times on the “reality” television show, “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

The newest addition to Ramsey’s upscale dining scene, Local Seasonal Kitchen, has quickly gained a loyal following since opening in February 2013. “The restaurant’s success is nothing short of a miracle,” says chef Steven Santoro, who has deep Ramsey roots. Santoro spent childhood summers working on his grandfather’s 35- acre farm in Ramsey, where Dominic Suraci grew blue spruce and dogwood trees, and cultivated vegetables and herbs that became the ingredients for large family dinners every Sunday. Santoro’s grandmother, Flora, showed him how to make pasta by hand, using a well-floured broomstick handle to roll out the dough, even for the most delicate sheet pastas. Santoro’s well-traveled professional cooking career has taken him to kitchens in Florida, New York City, New Jersey, Westchester and the Culinary Institute of America.

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Top to bottom, at Local Seasonal Kitchen: grilled and roasted winter vegetables;
Jean Santoro, chef Steven Santoro and pastry chef Jessica Marotta; corner table

He had moved back to Ramsey 12 years ago and was working at a popular Italian spot in midtown Manhattan when two cousins he hadn’t seen for years came in for dinner. They asked Santoro why he wasn’t running his own restaurant. That chance encounter evolved into a new family partnership and the business plan for Local Seasonal Kitchen.

Occupying a storefront that previously housed a deli in a nondescript shopping plaza on West Main Street, Local is now a bustling BYO dining room serving farm-to-table cuisine with a Manhattan vibe. (You might hear Led Zeppelin on the sound system late in the evening.) Santoro describes his cuisine as an “ingredientdriven kitchen.” In the spring and summer, Santoro might source as much as half his produce from the farmers’ market. Whatever is in season can be featured in multiple dishes. “I play with things as they come in,” Santoro says. When white truffles became available in December, for example, they appeared in a risotto, an egg raviolo appetizer and a meat-filled agnolotti. Homemade pastas—inspired by Flora—feature prominently among Santoro’s creations. A plate of fresh spaghetti with lobster chunks and Calabrian hot peppers is a popular standout. Entrées might include Barnegat Light sea scallops or herb-roasted chicken breast. Santoro’s menu changes often. For a fall dinner during the high school football season, my wife and I enjoyed a Berkshire-pork-belly appetizer dressed with a cherrypomegranate purée and Winesap apple compote. Grilled octopus is served with neatly squared pickled white sardines that add a nice vinegary tang. Don’t skip a dessert like the luscious dark chocolate and green tea budino with toasted marshmallow topping. Like me, you might find yourself popping in for a neatly wrapped bag of Local’s homemade caramel popcorn with smoked bacon bits. Affordable family-owned restaurants downtown complement Ramsey’s fine-dining options. Whether it is Tawara for Japanese fare, flavorful curries at GAO Thai Kitchen, or Smyrna Mediterranean Cafe for falafel and hummus, there are plenty of cuisines to try.

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Clockwise, from top left: Pão de Queijo, gluten-free cheese bread at Porto Alegre Café; octopus salad
at Local Seasonal Kitchen; Caldo Verde, traditional Portuguese soup made with collard greens, potatoes
and Brazilian sausage at Porto Alegre Café; maitake mushrooms, “Hen of the Woods,” Nori Aioli at
Café Panache; Clydesdale horse statue at Kinchley’s Tavern

Health-conscious Brazilian food is one of the less common cuisines you … Read More

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7 FISHES

If there’s one meal that represents the
Italian-American experience shared by many
New Jersey families, it’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes

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PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING

For many Italian-American families in New Jersey, Christmas Eve means seafood. Every year in mid-December, family cooks from Bayonne to Bellmawr start to count fishes, making sure that the holiday menu includes at least seven different kinds.

The traditional meal called the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” has its roots in Southern Italy, where observant Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays and on the day before holy days like Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the traditional supper was exclusively seafood, usually fried in oil. Fish is also associated with early Christians, who used a fish symbol to identify themselves in times of persecution. The significance of the number seven?

Religious interpretations point to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the seven virtues in the Catholic catechism, and Biblical references like God resting on the seventh day. The number could also refer to the Seven Hills of Rome, or just be a lucky number. Some families feature nine, 11 or even 13 fishes in their annual meal. Why seven “fishes” rather than seven “fish”? The “seven” means seven different species of fi sh. The great Italian migration to the United States between the 1880s and the 1930s brought thousands of Southern Italians to the Northeast, my own ancestors among them. Their seafood feast came with them.

My mother remembers Christmas Eve meals in the 1950s at her grandmother’s house on Third Street in South Orange. Antoinette Verducci, the Italian-born matriarch from Calabria, prepared the meal, which always included baccalà (salt cod), mussels in a spicy marinara sauce, fried smelts, and pastas with seafood sauces. The annual spread also included pizza fritta (fried dough) served with tomato sauce and zeppole (deep-fried dough balls) with powdered sugar, the highlight of the meal for my mom and her cousins. Mom avoided the smelts, a tiny fish caught in coastal estuaries.

The Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes lives on in New Jersey, and seems to have become more popular, or at least better remembered, in recent years. Restaurants across the Garden State have begun to offer the traditional Christmas Eve seafood feast in December. Younger generations are counting their fishes and rediscovering some of the seafood dishes prepared by the fi rst generation Italian-Americans.

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Italian cooking relies on fresh, local ingredients. For immigrant families with limited resources, the seafood selections in New Jersey were not fancy. Like all good cooks, Italian-Americans took what was cheap and abundant, applied familiar techniques and recipes from back home, and transformed simple food into memorable meals.

For decades, preparations for the feast have begun at the local Jersey fi sh market. Barbera Fish Market in Atlantic City has been selling the fi sh for South Jersey Italian feasts since 1919.

Dominic Alcaro, who bought the market in 1985, is a first-generation immigrant himself. His parents emigrated from Calabria in 1961 when he was six years old. Dominic still remembers his grandfather walking back from the Italian waterfront with eels, cuttlefish and whiting for the Christmas Eve meal.

Today, Barbera Fish Market sells some of the same fi sh species in New Jersey, but the most popular Seven Fishes have changed over the years. The fish market’s older customers order eel, baccalà, octopus and calamari to serve on Christmas Eve; younger customers prefer shrimp, flounder and sea bass.

Every family’s fishes are different, but Garden State menus usually include a few of the Italian-American red-sauce standbys like baccalà in tomato sauce, mussels in a spicy marinara sauce and fried calamari. My grandfather insisted that fried smelts be on the table every year. Really old-school families still serve eel stewed in tomato sauce.

And despite renewed interest in the feast by a number of New Jersey restaurants, Alcaro sees the feast continuing to be “mostly a home holiday.” Alcaro’s parents continued making the traditional meal in the United States, and now he is doing the same. After the last customer picks up the last holiday fi sh order from Barbera Fish Market, he hosts some 50 family members at his home in Gloucester, Camden County. His menu sticks to seven fi shes, but he prepares each fish several different ways for a total of 15 to 20 fi sh dishes on the table. Baccalà salad and stew are popular in his family. Alcaro not only fries his smelts—the “easy way,” he points out—but also sautés them with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and onion.

After feasting on all that seafood, Alcaro’s family gathers around an elaborate nativity scene adorned with figurines carved by his father. They sing Italian Christmas songs (like Tu scendi dalle stele—“You Come Down from the Stars”), and the youngest family member places the baby Jesus in the manger at midnight. “The Feast of the Seven Fishes is all about sacrifi ce and giving thanks,” says Alcaro. “It’s wonderful to see the Italian family tradition live on.”

RECIPE

FRIED SMELTS

7fishes2

FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES
MENUS

Old-School

Scungilli salad
Mussels in spicy marinara sauce
Fried smelts
Flounder fillet
Linguine with red clam sauce
Baccalà (salt cod) in tomato sauce
Eel stewed in tomato sauce

Updated

Shrimp cocktail
Clams oreganata
Fried calamari with marinara sauce
Zuppa di pesce (fish soup)
Seared scallops
Lobster fra diavalo over linguini
Whole grilled branzino (sea bass)

Above: Christmas Eve dinner, 1951,
at the Verducci home in South Orange

 

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FOOD GEOGRAPHY: VIETNAMESE ON THE ATLANTIC

Atlantic City becomes a destination
for a Vietnamese-food road trip

foodGeoVietnamese

foodGeoVietnamese2

foodGeoVietnamese3
Top: Sauteed shrimp in a clay pot at Pho Sydney; middle: Country style summer rolls at Little Saigon. Atlantic City;
bottom, Sauteed Beef White Noodle Soup at Hu Tieu Mien Tay, Pleasantville

“Cooking Vietnamese food well is difficult
because of the many nuances in a well-executed
dish. Every Vietnamese dish and meal should
balance multiple flavors—spicy, salty, sour,
bitter and sweet; and textures—raw vegetables
and charred meats, for example.”
—Kitty Nguyen

PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING

You might go for the boardwalk, casinos and nightlife, but do not leave Atlantic City without trying some of New Jersey’s best Vietnamese food.

Why Atlantic City? Most of New Jersey’s ethnic enclaves are in the northern half of the state, concentrated in the most densely populated cities. The Vietnamese are an exception. There are some 20,000 New Jerseyans of Vietnamese ancestry, and Camden and Atlantic counties have the highest populations. Look for clusters of Vietnamese restaurants and you will find them in Cherry Hill, outside Camden and in Atlantic City.

Kitty Nguyen, a friend and neighbor, is my expert guide on the intricacies of Vietnamese cuisine. After emigrating to the United States in 1975, Nguyen’s family ran a well-respected French-Vietnamese restaurant in Virginia for more than two decades. “Cooking Vietnamese food well is difficult because of the many nuances in a well-executed dish,” says Nguyen. “Every Vietnamese dish and meal should balance multiple flavors—spicy, salty, sour, bitter and sweet; and textures—raw vegetables and charred meats, for example.”

Vietnamese cooking incorporates centuries of culinary influences from China (soy sauce, stir-frying, noodles), Mongolia (beef ) and Southeast Asia (curries and Indian spices). The French influence in Vietnamese cuisine is visible in the baguettes used for banh mi (sandwiches), the use of butter, and the preference for strongly brewed coffee. Vietnam’s three regions each have distinctive dishes. Central Vietnam, especially the historic city of Hue, is known for elaborate meals. Northern Vietnamese cuisine, the food of Hanoi, features charcoal-grilled meats (bun cha), noodle dishes and beef pho (noodle soup) with flat rice noodles. Southern Vietnamese cuisine, served in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), tends to be spicier and features the use of South Asian curries as well as more seafood.

My wife and I both enjoy Vietnamese food and, with Kitty’s input, we made plans for a two-day summer getaway to Atlantic City to begin mapping the Vietnamese-food geography of Atlantic County. Hu Tieu Mien Tay (700 Black Horse Pike, Pleasantville) was our first stop. Proprieter Thomas Vu had never planned to open a restaurant. He settled in Atlantic County in 1991, joining a brother who had emigrated from southern Vietnam a decade earlier. While working at an Atlantic City casino, Vu noticed an empty space in the back of a Pleasantville strip mall anchored by an Asian supermarket. He seized the opportunity and opened Hu Tieu Mien Tay. For nine years, Vu’s “Noodle Soup House” has been serving some of the best traditional Vietnamese dishes in New Jersey.

To find the restaurant, hop off the parkway at Exit 37. Next to a Kmart, enter the Pleasantville Shopping Center under the “Asian Mall” sign. At the end of the hallway, past the Chinese supermarket, is the simple, cafeteria-style restaurant with about 70 seats.

We started with banh xeo, a shrimp and pork pancake appetizer. The huge, crispy omelet that arrived at our table was stuffed with bean sprouts, pork slices and cooked shrimp. You break off a piece, wrap it in a lettuce leaf, and dunk it in the small bowl of clear fish sauce (nuoc mam) placed on the table. Each delicious bite is simultaneously soft, crunchy, salty, sweet, warm and cool—those contrasting elements that distinguish Vietnamese cooking.

The menu translates hu tieu, which I ordered next, as “white noodle soup.” The large bowl of sautéed beef–white noodle soup (hu tieu bo kho) has thin rice noodles (vermicelli), carrots, fresh cilantro and chunks of beef in a rich broth. The broth is exceedingly flavorful, no doubt because the beef is still attached to plenty of fat and cartilage.

The meat is soft enough to pull right off with chopsticks if you are not into offal. My wife ordered one of her favorite Vietnamese dishes—fried spring rolls and barbecued pork atop a pile of vermicelli (bun cha gio thit nuong). The spring rolls here are excellent—paper- thin, crispy rice-paper wrappings filled with chopped pork and shrimp. We finished the meal with cups of strong, hot Vietnamese coffee, sweetened with condensed milk.

It’s a good thing my wife and I arrived early for lunch, because by noon on this summer weekend day, every table was filled. Our bill totaled less than $35. I thought this was an excellent start as we pulled out of the parking lot for the short drive east toward Atlantic City, where money always disappears faster than you expect.

On our first morning in Atlantic City, we tried pho for breakfast at Com Tam Ninh Kieu, located two blocks west of the boardwalk (1124 Atlantic Ave.). “Oh, the broth is so clear” is the highest possible compliment from a Vietnamese grandmother evaluating a bowl of this popular breakfast dish, Kitty Nguyen tells me. Traditional pho simmers—never boils—for at least five hours, and is constantly strained and skimmed. The rich flavors emerge from the ingredients, with no shortcuts. Sweetness comes from the meat bones, never added sugar. There must be some fat, but not too much, floating on the surface. Serious pho fans consider broth clarity, flavor and ingredients.

The broth is poured over fresh rice noodles with thin slices of raw beef. A plate of fresh herbs (cilantro and mint), raw bean sprouts, green chili peppers, and lemon or lime wedges comes with your bowl, so you can add flavors and textures to your liking.

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Banh mi sandwich at Hu Tieu Mien Tay

foodGeoVietnamese5
Com tam at Com Tam Ninh Kieu

The pho at Com Tam Ninh Kieu was the best bowl of soup we had during the trip—an extremely clear and flavorful broth with thin, tender beef slices still pink in the middle.

The restaurant’s namesake, com tam, “broken rice,” might be the perfect hangover food. Here, you can order the broken short-grain rice under various combinations of shredded pork, BBQ pork chop, steamed pork cake and fried eggs. The plate includes sweet pickled carrots and cucumbers, and homemade fish sauce for dipping (or just pour it over the rice pile as I did). The pork chop is thin and grilled in a sweet sauce that calls for picking it up to get every last bit of meat off the bone. Since it was breakfast, we ordered more Vietnamese coffee. A traditional Vietnamese coffee (ca phe den) is brewed in a single-serving, metal French-drip filter set over your cup at the table. For an intensely sweet treat, order your coffee with condensed milk (ca phe sua da). Our server reminded us to stir up the condensed milk from the bottom of the cup and gave us a thermos of hot water so we could dilute the coffee as we drank it.

Com Tam Ninh Kieu’s owner, Michael Nguyen (no relation to Kitty), ran … Read More

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FOOD GEOGRAPHY: HOME SEASONING

Ethnic barbeque is one of
New Jersey’s best-kept secrets

foodGeoHomeSeason

PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING

In the summertime, the thoughts of omnivores like me turn to barbecue—meat cooked “low and slow” next to smoldering coals. Many people fi re up their backyard grills and smokers. Others seek out the nearest restaurant serving the fi ercely regional styles of American barbecue, from Texas brisket to Kansas City burnt ends to North Carolina pulled pork.

New Jersey is not known as a barbecue destination. Though a growing number of Garden State BBQ spots serve up some very good renditions of the classic American styles, there is no recognized “Jersey” kind of barbecue. Nonetheless, barbecue is alive and well in our state’s ethnic communities. In fact, it’s one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets.

One pork dish—lechón—illustrates the diverse and delicious ethnic barbecue you can fi nd in New Jersey. From the Spanish word for milk, lechón originally meant roast suckling pig, prized for its mild milk-fed fl avor and thin skin. The traditional cooking technique is to dig a hole, fi ll it with wood charcoal, and roast a butchered whole pig over the glowing embers for hours until tender. The term lechón has come to describe a wider range of roasted pork dishes, from suckling pigs to whole hogs, in different global cuisines. Whole pigs may be cooked on a spit, in a pit or in an oven. Preparations vary, from dry rubs to wet marinades, with different spices and levels of sweetness. Every cook guards his or her own secret for ensuring moist meat, the right fl avors and, usually, a crispy skin. Cuban lechón asado, Filipino lechón and Portuguese leitão are three tasty plates of ethnic barbecue worth looking for in New Jersey this summer.

CUBAN

The key to Cuban lechón asado is the mojo, a paste of olive oil, salt, garlic, cumin and citrus (sour orange or lime) that is applied to the meat before, during and/or after roasting. Whole adult pigs might be cooked in a charcoal pit or a caja china (“Chinese box”) for special occasions, but oven-roasted pork shoulder is the most common lechón you will fi nd on Cuban menus in New Jersey. Unlike that of whole roasted pigs, the pork skin in this version of lechón is not crispy, but the mojo permeates everything for a moist and fl avorful plate of pork. El Unico (4211 Park Ave., Union City) has been serving Cuban comfort food in Union City for 40 years. The no-frills cafeteria roasts large pork shoulders daily in two pizza ovens. Doña Susy, the Recio family matriarch running the show from El Unico’s cash register, will not divulge the exact ingredients in her family’s mojo, or even when they apply the marinade. She says every restaurant does it differently, and the mojo is the key to the meat’s fl avor. Order the lechón here and you get a large portion of moist meat with a slightly sour tang. Including white rice or arroz moro (rice with black beans) and garlicky sautéed yuca or fried sweet plantains, the $5 plate is an incredible bargain.

Union City, once known as “Havana on the Hudson” for its Cuban population—one of the most concentrated outside of Florida—is the spot for Cuban food in New Jersey. Two other Union City cafeterias serving fresh lechón are El Artesano (4101 Bergenline Ave.) and La Churreria (3300 Bergenline Ave.). If the lechón happens to be sold out at either, try the ropa vieja (shredded beef). And don’t leave without a shot of intense Cuban coffee.

foodGeoHomeSeason2
Cuban Lechón at El Unico

FILIPINO

Another island nation, the Philippines, shares Cuba’s Spanish colonial heritage and its passion for lechón. Filipino lechón, sweeter than the Cuban version, is typically prepared with a spice mix featuring salt, black pepper, sugar, onion, vinegar and ground pork liver. In Cebustyle lechón, the fl avors of lemongrass, star anise and bananas are added by stuffi ng the pig. In the Philippines, the traditional method is to cook the whole adult pig outside on a spit over burning wood. The pig is basted periodically to create the crispy, ocher-colored skin that is the hallmark of a Filipino lechón.

Carlos Cancio was born in Pampanga, on the northern shore of Manila Bay. He worked multiple jobs after immigrating to the United States as a young man. While delivering packages for DHL in New Jersey, Carlos started experimenting with different ingredients and techniques to perfect his Filipino barbecue. He began roasting whole pigs in his garage, fi rst in Livingston, then in Jersey City, and developed quite a loyal following. Now “retired,” six years ago he opened the New Barbecue Pit (100 N. Washington Ave., Bergenfi eld) where four of his six children are involved in the family business.

Carlos, too, will not reveal his lechón spices and tricks. But you can taste the results of his self-taught barbecue education at the small restaurant with a few tables inside and a bustling takeout business. The lechón has succulent meat with chunks attached to beautifully crispy skin. It is delicious served with a side of garlic or jasmine rice. The flavor is slightly sweet, as is the lechón sauce for marinating and dipping that Carlos serves and sells by the bottle. Add a squirt of homemade chili sauce from the bottles on the table if you want it spicier. At $9 for a pound of meat, this is another ethnic barbecue bargain.

According to Carlos’ son, Louie Cancio, who mans the kitchen at the New Barbecue Pit, Christmas is peak season for whole lechón orders. They roast as many as 60 pigs a day for family celebrations during the holidays, working all night long to meet the demand. The rest of the year, they prepare around ten pigs each weekend. Depending on the size, a 30- to 45-pound whole pig costs between $180 and $200.

The New Barbecue Pit also serves Filipino specialties like pancit (stirfried rice noodles), embutido (Filipino meatloaf ), and lumpia (fried spring rolls). Chicken, ribs and pulled pork round out the menu for American BBQ fans. What makes Filipino lechón special? According to the elder Cancio, “You blend the flavors with your heart and mind.”

PORTUGUESE

Portuguese BBQ spots are multiplying in New Jersey, with menus that feature barbecued chicken, ribs, grilled steaks, and Portuguese originals like cubed pork with potatoes (picadinho) or clams (à Alentejana).

For a special treat, find a restaurant that serves leitão à Bairrada, whole suckling pig prepared with a paste of garlic, white pepper and pig fat rubbed over the entire pig inside and out, as is the tradition in the Bairrada region of Portugal. The result is subtly flavored meat encrusted in super-crispy skin. The skin, much thinner on young pigs, is irresistible—glistening, crispy and a deep, reddish-ocher color. It’s all you can do to resist snapping off the tip of an ear as soon as it is within reach. The melted layer of fat between the skin and meat coats every slice of pork with even more flavor. One of the best meals I’ve had in New Jersey, or anywhere else, is the leitão from Elizabeth’s appropriately named Casa do Leitão. Sadly, … Read More

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FOOD GEOGRAPHY: NEW JERSEY’S INCA TRAIL

Great Peruvian food, no mountain climbing required

foodGeoInca

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY EWING

You do not have to traverse the Andes or fly to Lima to sample one of the world’s finest, most diverse cuisines: Peruvian food. New Jersey might be one of the best places outside of Peru to eat it.

Fresh seafood, grilled meats, Chinese-influenced rice dishes, Japanese-inspired ceviches, complex sauces and seemingly endless potato varieties make Peruvian one of the world’s most diverse, distinctive, and delicious cuisines. Five hundred years in the making, Peruvian menus blend indigenous foods cultivated by the ancient Incas—corn, potatoes, chilies—with the ingredients and techniques imported by waves of European, African and Asian immigrants. Signature Peruvian dishes offer something for every taste.

Peru has been getting a lot of global attention lately from the food press and celebrity chefs. None other than gastronomic guru Ferran Adrià, whose restaurant El Bulli was considered by many to be the world’s best before it closed to the public in 2011, declared, “The future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru.” Adrià has announced plans to open a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant in Barcelona and recently collaborated with Peru’s most famous chef, Gastón Acurio, on a Peruvian food documentary. Acurio, who owns dozens of restaurants in Peru and around the world, opened his first New York cebicheria, La Mar, two years ago.

Foodies are just catching up to a cuisine we have had in our midst for a while. New Jersey is home to multiple first-generation Peruvian- American neighborhoods with no-frills restaurants serving cheap and delicious Peruvian food primarily to local customers. You can eat strong versions of every signature Peruvian dish in the Garden State —except for the traditional Andean cuy (guinea pig), which I have yet to see on a Jersey menu.

New Jersey’s Inca Trail runs through North Jersey’s historically industrial towns where Latino immigrants are revitalizing blue-collar neighborhoods. All of these restaurants are very affordable—you can generally feed a family of five, with plenty of leftovers, for less than $60. You are unlikely to glimpse magnificent Andean cloud forests or the ruins of any 15th-century civilizations, but you will enjoy wonderful food.

Start your expedition in Hudson County, home to three of the communities in the United States with the highest percentage of residents claiming Peruvian ancestry (East Newark, Harrison and Kearny). Oh! Calamares (102 Kearny Avenue, Kearny) is a popular neighborhood spot with a full bar, so you can start your meal sipping a Pisco Sour, the Peruvian national cocktail made with grape brandy (pisco), frothy egg whites and a dash of bitters. Treat the kids to an Inka Kola, the popular Peruvian soft drink that tastes like Mountain Dew with a hint of bubble gum. Choritos a la chalaca, mussels topped with vinegar-marinated onions and Peruvian large-kernel corn, are a nice twist on traditional ceviche. Picante de mariscos is a delicious bowl of shellfish in a creamy sauce flavored with ají amarillo, the yellow Peruvian pepper used in many dishes. The best known Peruvian potato dish is papas a la huancaina—sliced potatoes garnished with olives and hard-boiled eggs, coated in a cool, bright yellow cheese sauce mildly spiced with ají amarillo, Oh! Calamares makes a very good huancaina sauce. I prefer the spicier versions, and like it on fried yuca better than over boiled potatoes. So head north into Bergen County to Rutherford’s Sabor Peru (8 Highland Cross, Rutherford) for an excellent yuca a la huancaina. Their heaping plate of Peruvian fried rice—chaufa—is also worth the trip.

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Cross the Passaic River for Peruvian food in the heart of New Jersey’s Peruvian community. Passaic County is home to the largest Peruvian population in the state, a Peruvian Consulate in Paterson, and dozens of Peruvian eateries. The annual Peruvian Parade in July attracts 30,000 participants to the streets of Paterson, Clifton and Passaic. According to Haledon Councilwoman Belgica Costa, a first generation Peruvian-American who grew up outside of Trujillo in Northern Peru, the Parade and festival is a good opportunity to sample Peruvian treats like picarones (squash and sweet potato doughnuts covered in syrup) and mazamora morada (a purple corn pudding). Costa recommends Clifton’s Aji Limon (1239 Main Avenue) for one of her favorite dishes, pescado a lo macho, a fish fillet served in a creamy seafood sauce.

If you like rotisserie chicken, you’ll love the Peruvian version. Peruvian cooks marinate the chicken in vinegar and spices, often overnight, before roasting. Pollo a la brasa, done right, has a crisp skin, with juicy flavorful meat throughout. El Chevere (603 Main Avenue, Passaic) is the place to order a whole or half chicken a la brasa, the house specialty. The restaurant offers a comfortable, family friendly dining room in downtown Passaic. There is a full menu of Peruvian standards, including anticuchos, the popular Peruvian street food. Adventurous eaters can try grilled skewers of marinated organ meats like beef hearts, chicken livers gizzards (mollejitas), chicken hearts, pork stomach (pancita) or tripe (rachi).

Peruvian dining can be very healthy, with the abundance of seafood and nutrient-rich grains like quinoa. It can also be downright decadent, given the many fried foods and rich cheese sauces. One of the more heart unhealthy, but delicious sandwiches I’ve eaten is served at El Mamut (22 Broadway, Passaic), a tiny café and lunch counter. The “Especial” is a large soft bun filled with thick slices of fresh roasted pork, blood sausage, sliced yams and pickled red onions. Pour on the homemade rocoto chili sauce for a nice spicy kick. The “Wooly Mammoth” name and logo might be a nod to the size of all of their sandwiches, which include a pork rind sandwich and a hamburger topped with egg, bacon and cheese. Nothing on the menu costs more than $7. The line of people waiting for a seat on Saturdays often goes out the door.

For the next stop on New Jersey’s Inca Trail, hop on Route 80 and drive west all the way to Morris County. Dover is one of thirteen majority Hispanic municipalities in New Jersey according to the 2010 Census. Its Peruvian community eats well. El Marino (130 Mt. Hope Road, Dover), which sits unobtrusively in a residential neighborhood above downtown Dover, might be serving some of the best Peruvian food in New Jersey. The restaurant doesn’t need the endearing sign in the window—“Authenticates Peruvian Food”—to confirm the authenticity of its cuisine. Just look at the packed tables on a weekend afternoon. El Marino celebrates Peruvian seafood, with a menu emphasizing seafood soups like chupe de camarones—shrimp bisque served with poached eggs, fish and shellfish entrees —fried, stewed and with rice, and ten different ceviches.

Peruvians are justifiably proud of their many ceviche variations— raw fish marinated and “cooked” in lemon or lime juice, flavored with chilies. Ceviche de pescado (fish), mixto (with shellfish) and de camarones (shrimp) are typically served with sweet potato, large kernel Peruvian corn (choclo), and a scattering of pickled red onions. Tiraditos are thin fish slices, like sashimi, prepared the same way. In spicier versions, the ceviche marinating liquid, leche de tigre (tiger milk), can be ordered as a drink thought to cure hangovers. The Ceviche Trio at El Marino is the best ceviche I … Read More

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FLAVORS OF INDIA

Indian food is fairly easy to find across New Jersey these days. Most Indian restaurants serve familiar dishes, the curries, kebabs and flatbreads originating in North Indian regions, like the Punjab. It takes a little more work, however, to find India’s other regional specialties, the South Indian dosas, Gujarati dhoklas and Indo-Chinese chili chicken Hakka style sought out by Indian- Americans. While Jersey City’s “Little India” (Newark Avenue), Parsippany (along Route 46), and Cherry Hill boast clusters of eateries featuring the rich variety of South Asian cuisine, it is the Route 27/Route 1 corridor from Woodbridge to South Brunswick that is home to some of the best and most diverse Indian food New Jersey’s South Asian community has to offer. Set your FPS (food positioning service) for Oak Tree Road as Edible Jersey continues our journey through New Jersey’s ethnic food geography with the founder of EthnicNJ.com.

Taste the regional diversity of Indian cuisine
in the heart of New Jersey’s South Asian
diaspora: Oak Tree Road, Iselin/Edison

flavorsIndia
Thali platter at Jhupdi in Edison, featuring Gujarati
vegetable preparations, dips and breads.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING

The two-mile stretch of Oak Tree Road from Iselin to Edison is the place in Jersey to sample Indian food that goes beyond, way beyond, the typical Indian dishes familiar to most Americans of non-South Asian ancestry. With over a hundred thousand Indian residents, suburban Middlesex County has the third-largest Asian Indian community in the United States; only Santa Clara, California, and Queens, New York, have larger Indian populations.

South Asian immigrants have transformed this area in little more than a single generation. In the 1970s, the combination of Indian professionals living in Jersey City and Queens looking for suburban homes, strong public schools near high-tech employers, and commercial strips losing business to malls sparked the rapid growth of the Indian community centered around Oak Tree Road. Thanks to this concentration, “Oak Tree Road has a greater density and variety of Indian restaurants than any other Desi (South Asian) community in the country,” says Chitra Agrawal, an Indian-American food blogger (abcdsofcooking.blogspot.com) and cooking teacher who grew up in New Jersey. “Relatives visiting from India know about Oak Tree Road and ask to eat there.”

Like the words “Mexican” or “Chinese,” “Indian” is the catchall American description of what is, in fact, many regional cuisines (and often the shared historical cuisines of India’s South Asian neighbors— Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). North Indian and Punjabi cuisine might be most familiar—meat dishes cooked with intense spice mixes (masalas) or grilled in a tandoor oven; flatbreads (roti, paratha, naan); deep-fried fritters (pakoras) and hearty rice biryanis—but Indian cuisine ranges far and wide. India comprises 35 different states and territories, after all. Many Indians are vegetarians, a diet reflected in India’s regional cuisines. South Indian food, mostly vegetarian, features sambar (spicy lentil stew), dosas (rice-and-lentil crepes) and idli (steamed rice cakes). Gujarati dishes highlight vegetables, chutneys and sweets. Indo-Chinese restaurants blend Indian spices with Chinese specialties for an entirely unique cuisine. It can all be found along Oak Tree Road, straddling the Parkway at Exit 131.

There are so many South Asian restaurants tucked into Oak Tree Road’s strip mall shopping plazas, it is difficult to know where to start. Agrawal, who visits often, starts on the eastern end in the Iselin section of Woodbridge. She recommends Jassi Sweets Center (12 Marconi Ave., at the corner of Oak Tree Road) for savory Punjabi snacks like papri chaat (crunchy chips, yogurt and sweet and spicy chutneys) and boondi raita (fried balls of chickpea flour in spiced yogurt). I tried the excellent samosa chaat (fried samosa chunks instead of chips) on a recent visit, but what drew my attention was the colorful dessert case filled with sweets, rivaling any well-stocked Italian bakery counter. While I ordered a few pieces of the homemade gulab jamun (milk dumplings soaked in rose-flavored sugar syrup) to go, proprietor Jaswant Singh offered everyone in the shop samples of sweet sesame-seed balls, warm and fresh out of the oven. Apparently, this dessert has no specific name, it’s just a sweet he created. The balls are delicious—crumbly, but held together with moist, melted raw sugar. I ordered a small box to go. Two other customers, sisters Amna and Rabia Hakim, insisted I not leave the shop without trying the freshly pressed sugarcane juice, which they consider the best on Oak Tree Road. At their suggestion, I ordered mine with a little added spice (masala). The result is a refreshing, not too sweet, cold drink with hints of ginger and spice, sort of a South Asian “Arnold Palmer” made with chai.

To experience the cuisine of South India as it might be served in Bangalore, go to the other end of Oak Tree Road to Edison’s allvegetarian Swagath Gourmet (1700 Oak Tree Rd., westbound side). After taking a seat in the no-frills dining room, you are immediately served a small silver bowl of warm rasam, a sweet and spicy tamarind-flavored soup. The snack-sized dishes on the menu include vada (fritters), idli and the ubiquitous South Indian dosas (see sidebar). All are served with sambar, the spicy lentil stew, and at least one chutney, typically coconut and chili. Uttapam—thick riceand- lentil pancakes—are also excellent for dipping. The intensely spiced rice dishes are also not to be missed at Swagath. Puliyogare, a rice specialty blended with tamarind and 14 herbs and spices is one of the most powerful plates of rice I’ve ever tasted. Every dish is served, literally, on a silver platter.

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Menus may not
translate everything,
so don’t be shy about
asking questions,
especially if you are
unsure about ingredients
or spiciness.

To sample the cuisine of Gujarat, a Western Indian state and the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, turn left and look for Jhupdi (1679 Oak Tree Rd., eastbound side), an Oak Tree Road standby for 13 years. From the comfortable wooden booths, one can gaze upon a tranquil rural village scene hand-painted along one wall. There is space for larger groups to feast while seated on the floor among plush pillows and woven floor coverings. For an appetizer, try the delicate khoman dhoklas, steamed chickpea flour cakes that taste like cornbread. The sweetness of the cakes contrasts nicely with the accompanying spicy chutneys. The samosa chaat here, a plate of fried samosa pieces covered with yogurt, chopped onions, green chutney and sweet chutney, blends sweet and spicy, soft and crunchy in a single, delectable spoonful.

Order a thali platter as a main course to sample many different Gujarati vegetable preparations, dips and breads. A thali here can be an adventure for the uninitiated and those with no working knowledge of the Gujarati language, like my wife and me. The Jhupdi Special thali we ordered arrived at the table on a steel platter with 10 different items in small metal containers, surrounding two millet-flour flatbreads (bajri rotla) for dipping. The waiter also placed a glass of buttermilk (chhas) on the table, which apparently comes with the platter. None of the vegetable mixtures was immediately identifiable for us, so we started tasting and guessing. The tastes included a sweet grain flavored with cardamom, a yellow spicy mashed potato, a split-lentil … Read More

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EDIBLE ESCAPE: COMIDA MEXICANA AL GUSTO

Freehold and Long Branch have become must-stops
for anyone in search of authentic Mexican cuisine.

escapeComida

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY EWING

escapeComida2
Navigating New Jersey can be challenging, even for natives. A little local knowledge (like stay off Route 206 at rush hour and avoid Route 1/9 through Elizabeth if it’s raining) is invaluable. Eating well in New Jersey requires similar skills. Ethnic-food fans know our state’s diversity means almost every global cuisine is available here, somewhere. In our newest regular feature, Edible Jersey will be your FPS (food positioning service) navigator as we explore our state’s ethnic-food geography along with the founder of EthnicNJ.com. The first delicious installment: Mexican food.

Like many Americans, Ortega Taco Dinners were my Italian- American childhood introduction to “Mexican” food. Since then, however, I’ve sampled a wide range of authentic Mexican cuisine, from Yucatán’s cochinita pibil (marinated pork slow-roasted in banana leaves) to Baja California’s fried fish tacos with cabbage and lime. I’ve learned that Mexican tacos are wrapped in soft, handmade corn tortillas and can be filled with pork, lengua (beef tongue) or other mouthwatering fillings. The best chiles rellenos are coated in fried egg. And Mexican hot chocolate, thick with a hint of chile, is a treat not to be missed.

So it has been with eager anticipation that I have watched authentic Mexican restaurants sprout up all over the Garden State, many in unexpected places. More than 200,000 New Jersey residents claimed Mexican ancestry in the 2010 Census, the second-largest Hispanic ethnic group after Puerto Rican. Ten percent of them live in Monmouth County. And two towns, in particular, have become enclaves for outstanding Mexican cuisine.

Freehold, once known more for being a signpost on the back roads to the Shore and the hometown of Bruce Springsteen, today boasts a half-dozen Mexican restaurants. There are a couple of Tex- Mex places on Main Street that attract a mixed crowd, including many non-Latinos. But just around the corner, on the side streets, are the no-frills storefronts serving trueMexican comfort food, mostly to the local Mexican-American community.

The menu at Fonda Bahia de Acapulco on South Street in Freehold emphasizes home-style Mexican cooking. Miguel Gonzáles, who cooks there, says most of the customers hail from the Mexican states of Puebla, famous for its mole poblano, and Oaxaca, where chicken is served with the even darker mole negro. “Mexicans will order different tacos, fish dishes, and specialties like the sombrero ranchero—grilled beef, chicken, cactus, peppers and onions served in a stone molcajete with queso fresco,” says Gonzáles. “Non-Mexicans tend to order the burritos and enchiladas.” Oaxacan tlayudas—a large, thin, fried tortilla covered with beans, meat, pork lard, cabbage, cheese and avocado—are on the menu at La Nueva Placita, a small market with a food counter next to the train tracks on Throckmorton Street.

Head east from Freehold on Routes 18 and 36 to Long Branch, birthplace of both Dorothy Parker and Springsteen, and you will find one of the highest concentrations of family-runMexican restaurants in New Jersey. Once the summer seaside retreat of U.S. presidents, downtown Long Branch today is a year-round destination for eating hearty comida auténtica at one of a dozen Mexican places along Broadway.

El Oaxaqueño is one of the best. As soon as you walk in, you’ll note the telltale signs of a good ethnic restaurant: a huge handpainted mural along one wall, television in the native tongue of the proprietors, and unlabeled spicy condiments on the table. The dining room has about a dozen tables and does a bustling takeout business from the front counter, where pollos rostizados (rotisserie chickens) turn bronze and crispy. Service is attentive, friendly and more or less bilingual, though knowing some Spanish will certainly help. A basket of homemade tortilla chips quickly arrives to accompany the spicy salsas, a red mole and a green tomatillo. On one visit, my daughter ordered a chicken burrito, filled with shreds of that slowroasted chicken, which could have fed a small family. Try the chicken with mole Oaxaqueño, a powerful, spicy and complex sauce colored so red it’s almost black. Sample the traditional molcajete Oaxaqueño as well, washing it down with a cane sugar Mexican soda (toronja—grapefruit—is my favorite flavor), or a licuado— fruit shake.

For some of the best Mexican tacos anywhere in New Jersey, do not miss Taquería La Valentina, a food counter and café tucked into the back of a grocery store on Broadway. Enter through the narrow aisles stacked high with Mexican goods under piñatas hanging from the ceiling, or through the back entrance from the parking lot. Freshly made tortillas have an unmatched toasted corn flavor and chewy grilled texture, and La Valentina’s are made right there behind the counter. Tacos are available with 13 different fillings, from lengua (beef tongue) to barbacoa de chivo (shredded barbecued goat) to tripa (tripe), and everything in between. The taco al pastor (marinated pork) I ordered was served in tasty soft tortillas with chopped onion, pineapple and cilantro, accompanied by radish slices, a roasted scallion and whole hot pepper on the side. Squirt some lime juice over it all and it is the perfect Mexican mouthful—or three. Ana Ochoa, the enthusiastic proprietor from Jalisco, added the Taquería to the grocery two years ago. While a success with her Mexican customers, she says the food counter gets few non-Mexican customers. “We would welcome them to try our food,” she adds in Spanish, smiling broadly.

Entrepreneurs abound in New Jersey’s family-owned Mexican restaurants. Down the street from El Oaxaqueño, brothers Giddel and Fredy Gonzáles Estrada have opened Rokamar Restaurant, taking over the space from another Mexican eatery. The brothers had worked in other New JerseyMexican restaurants while saving money to open their own. After three years looking for the right opportunity, they chose to invest in the Long Branch location. According to Giddel, “There’s still room in Long Branch for new places. It’s a nice town with a large Mexican community.”

As in Freehold, the best Mexican food in Long Branch isn’t chain restaurant “Mexican” where the menu has been diluted for perceived North American tastes. Instead, in most of these restaurants at least two-thirds of the customers are Mexican. Some dishes on the menu—tacos de cuerito (pork-skin tacos) or chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips smothered in red or green mole)—may be unfamiliar to non- Mexicans. Most restaurants are simple establishments where you can eat a lot for a fair price: three overflowing tacos cost around six dollars. While English is often the second language, menus include English translations and most servers speak some English. But a language barrier won’t keep you from enjoying some of New Jersey’s most delicious—and authentic—Mexican food.

Miguel Gonzáles of Freehold’s Fonda Bahia de Acapulco is from Mexico City, so I asked him where to find typical Mexico City food in New Jersey. He has yet to find a spot for carne suadero tacos or chicharron prensado (pressed pork rinds), two staples of the Mexican capital, but he’s heard of a Lakewood food truck serving some Mexico City items. Time to break out the map and head to Ocean County. n

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Ana Ochoa arrived in Long Branch from Jalisco, Mexico, some 20 … Read More

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