Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Pat Tanner for the May 4, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. A correction was added, below, on May 11,
2006. All rights reserved.
New Brunswick Dining: From the Melting Pot
by Pat Tanner
Although the moniker "Hub City" for New Brunswick has never really
caught on, at least not with those outside the city limits, the
designation is fitting when it comes to its dining scene. Each
business day the city’s already diverse population of 49,000 triples
to include such divergent dining groups as Rutgers University
students, corporate employees from the Johnson & Johnson world
headquarters, hospital and healthcare workers from the three major
medical centers and schools located within its borders, civil service
workers from the county administrative offices and courthouse, and the
culture hounds who patronize the State Theater, George Street
Playhouse, and Crossroads Theater.
New Brunswick went through something of a restaurant boom a few years
back, resulting in the addition of some fine, upscale restaurants such
as Makeda Ethiopian, SoHo on George, and North Star Cafe. Panico’s,
Stage Left, and the Frog and the Peach had already set the bar high
for fine dining.
But the downtown restaurant scene has taken some hits over the last 18
months. Teresa’s, the popular Italian restaurant on Easton Avenue,
burned down last year. Toscana, another highly rated Italian, has gone
out of business, as has North Star Cafe, the Liberty Street spot known
for its tapas. Ongoing municipal construction will keep another
popular spot, the Green Grotto/Jamaican Delight, closed until spring
of 2006. And although the homey southern fare is still going strong at
Delta’s on Dennis Street, the restaurant has discontinued what was my
favorite meal there: the Sunday gospel brunch.
Which is why I contend that these days the most exciting dining in New
Brunswick is happening at its more modest, mostly ethnic, often
overlooked restaurants. Chardas Hungarian Restaurant has been around
for 40 years and reflects one of the city’s oldest but dwindling
Others, like Costa Chica and El Oaxaqueno #2, spotlight the more
recent influx of Mexican-Americans. Name a popular cuisine – Indian,
Turkish, Japanese, Thai, Chinese (even Mongolian) – and be assured the
town has at least one representative. Rutgers students ensure a
preponderance of good, cheap eats – everything from hamburgers at Old
Man Rafferty’s to ice cream at Thomas Sweet to stromboli at Stuff Yer
Face, where Mario (Molto Mario) Batali got his start while a theater
student there. Herewith, a few of my favorites.
To be honest, after a decade of restaurant reviewing I had given up
hope of finding really good barbecue in these parts. Until, that is, I
came across C.T.’s Bar-B-Que (732-418-8889). At the time, owner Calvin
Todd was dispensing what is arguably the state’s best, most authentic
‘cue from a truck he pulled onto a vacant gravel lot each day on Route
27 in Somerset. Finally in April he moved indoors to a bright,
cheerful, casual storefront in a strip mall at the corner of Franklin
Boulevard and Hamilton Street, technically in Somerset. C.T.’s wide
selection of all things barbecue – and his traditional sides, such as
mac and cheese, collards, baked beans, potato salad, and the like – is
the real deal.
Meats and poultry have that rosy-pink flesh all the way to the bone,
which can only be achieved by slow smoke cooking. Pork and beef ribs
and chicken are cooked until tender and falling off the bone, and the
various barbecue sauces C.T.’s employs are sticky, slightly spicy, and
not overly sweet – that last a deal-breaker with so much of what
passes as barbecue. Prices are a steal. Family meals that serve two
voracious diners or three normal appetites and include two side dishes
range from $13 for a whole barbecued chicken to $18 for a slab of
spareribs. The ribs are my favorite, although the Memphis pulled pork
sandwich runs a close second.
Todd has added desserts such as sweet potato pie and a full line of
hot breakfasts to his offerings. C.T.’s location at a prominent
intersection should make it easy to find, but it is not. Here is
advice from Peter Genovese, a fellow food writer who went to C.T.’s on
my advice: "Look for KFC and the Value Center Plaza. Drive around and
behind the KFC and look for a strip mall that includes Pizza Palace
and Yummy, Yummy, a Chinese restaurant."
Chardas Hungarian Restaurant (732-246-9393) may not be as difficult to
locate – at 214 Somerset Street near Robert Wood Johnson University
Hospital – but its sign and front door are so unassuming it’s easy to
pass it by. Don’t. This modest but venerable spot has been dishing up
honest, authentic Hungarian classics for 40 years now. The folksy
decor looks like it hasn’t changed in all that time, with its wood
paneled walls, red cotton curtains embroidered with yarn, and
bulkheads stenciled in intricate folk designs.
Everything is made from scratch by the two women of a certain age who
share the kitchen and dining room duties. The menu features three
kinds of goulash, including a fabulous Transylvanian version with
sauerkraut and chunks of tender boneless pork. The breaded veal cutlet
surpasses the Wiener schnitzel of many finer restaurants, and at a
fraction of the cost. Entrees come with a choice of mashed potatoes or
dumplings, the latter less like the big globs of dough we call
dumplings and more like spaetzle, those delicate bits of pasta-like
dough that are boiled and then sauteed in butter.
Appetizers start at a ridiculously low 80 cents for a cucumber salad
of paper-thin slices in a refreshing, perfectly balanced vinegar and
sugar dressing. A recent dinner for four at Chardas, which does not
accept credit cards, totaled $60 – and that included four memorable
desserts: chestnut puree over ice cream, old-fashioned jellyroll with
apricot filling, and palacsintas (Hungarian crepes) filled with cheese
and apricot jam.
Chardas could very well be the last remaining Hungarian restaurant in
New Brunswick, but the city still has an active Hungarian community.
Each year the Hungarian Civic Association mounts an annual festival
along Somerset Street from Division to Bethany Street. This year it
falls on Saturday, June 4, rain or shine, and features food, music,
arts and crafts, children’s activities, and more.
A throwback of an entirely different kind is Zafra, a vegetarian
restaurant at 46 Paterson Street (732-214-1005). Joe Febles, the
owner-chef, named it after the Cuban word for harvest, and truth be
told, it appears to go beyond vegetarian into vegan territory, since
dishes feature soy cheese in place of regular cheese. It would be hard
to find a more sincerely crunchy restaurant, or one more reminiscent
of the best of the 1970s. On specified nights, movies ranging from
thought-provoking documentaries to grade-B horror flicks are shown
free of charge on a big screen on the front wall of the dining room.
Patrons don’t even have to purchase anything to eat or drink.
Happily, vegetarian cuisine has improved over the last three decades,
so the soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees at Zafra are often quite
good. Since I am not against eating meat on philosophical grounds, I
tend to avoid the dishes with ersatz meats – substances such as seitan
and gluten – because I don’t see the point. There is plenty to be had
here that is naturally plant-based, like the Caribbean black bean
soup, yucca fries, hummus, roasted eggplant sandwich, and spinach
tortellini. The "maple" (soy-based) balsamic dressing for green salads
is a standout. I also enjoyed the ginger-tamari dipping sauce that
comes with an appetizer of six wontons fried golden brown and filled
with a tasty, moist filling of Asian vegetables. Plantain-tofu
croquettes are well conceived and well executed, with a crisp,
deep-fried coating and sweet glaze of "maple"-ginger sauce.
In some ways, though, Zafra too closely mimics the old hippie days. It
is very laidback in service and in attention to housekeeping details.
I wouldn’t dine there when I’m in a hurry or trying to make a curtain,
and I wouldn’t take friends who would look askance at the occasional
cracked coffee mug or be put off by a sticky table (which will,
though, be cheerfully remedied when pointed out).
Sophie’s Bistro (732-545-7778), on the other hand, is all about style
and appearance – a true French bistro. It is located at 700 Hamilton
Street in Somerset (not far from C.T.’s, actually), yet inside it
truly feels like the Left Bank. Tin ceiling, big, old, mirror-backed
bar stocked to the gills with Pernod, pastis, and Lillet (or, at least
it is in my fantasy), tablecloths in Provencal colors and patterns,
and reproductions of vintage French ads all create a grand illusion.
The menu features exactly the dishes it should: onion soup, coq au
vin, boeuf Bourguignon, cassoulet (on Saturdays only), coquilles St.
Jacques, steak frites – you get the picture. All of it is good, but I
would really not seek it out for the food alone (although its many
The setting and the cheerful ambiance go a long way here, as does the
modest but interesting wine list. The day’s specials in wines by the
glass are a particular bargain. One night it was Veuve-Clicquot
Champagne, another time I enjoyed an interesting red blend from
Languedoc, Chateau de Paraza, which includes carignan grapes. Peter
Mack is the owner of Sophie’s, but when I visited, his charming and
gregarious father, who is especially knowledgeable about wine, was
performing the host duties.
The pate de campagne is superb and is accompanied by cornichons,
nicoise olives, and a mound of frisee dressed with a good, tart
vinaigrette. I also recommend the moules mariniere, a special on
Sundays, that comprises a generous portion of mussels in a white wine
broth that features as much shallot as it does garlic.
While we’re on the European continent, I should mention Los Molinos,
the Spanish restaurant at 2 Georges Road (732-545-5955). A stone’s
throw from Cook College, it has become a favorite with faculty there,
for its good (not great) renditions of the standard dishes American
have come to associate with Spanish restaurants. I can’t argue with
much of it, like the traditional complimentary bowl of caldo Gallego,
a hearty soup of white beans, ham, and kale.
While I have never fully understood the appeal of paella (even in
Spain), the Valencian version at Los Molinos is sprightlier than most.
Portions are gargantuan and prices reasonable, which always helps, and
it is clear that quality, fresh ingredients form the basis of the
fare. Just don’t expect fireworks when it comes to the food. Boneless
breast of chicken in lemon sauce and veal scaloppini are typical
offerings. Fully half the menu items involve seafood, many choices
From the outside, Los Molinos, which means the windmills, looks less
than promising: a sand-and-stone exterior with a neon sign last time I
looked. But inside it has the warm glow of highly polished wood and a
bit of formality with crystal chandeliers and walls accented with oil
paintings. Service is taken seriously by the owners, the Villarino
family, who hail from northwest Spain. Ignore the token wines from
California, Italy, and France and focus on the serious and seriously
good Spanish wines on the list.
When it comes to Mexican fare in New Brunswick, it’s hard to go wrong.
I particularly like Costa Chica (732-545-2255), a big, bright, airy
casual restaurant at 314 Handy Street that has all the earmarks of
having been a pizzeria in its former life. In fact, Costa Chica bills
itself as a "Mexican Restaurant & Pizzeria," although I have never
screwed up the courage to actually order a pizza there. How could I,
when every time I walk in the place my eyes are drawn to the big,
shiny, high-tech tortilla cooking machine, which is usually tended by
an elderly Mexican woman who deftly repositions the rounds so they
turn out just right.
All the usual tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and enchiladas are in
place, but they are set apart by the fresh ingredients and the balance
between the ingredients. Costa Chica’s fare is not the gloppy, gooey
mess that is the hallmark of bad Mexican food. Diners can go far
beyond the standard fillings, too. Goat meat, beef tripe and tongue,
and extra-fatty beef are offered in addition to marinated pork,
grilled beef, chicken, and sausage. Price is not an issue. A special
mixed grill dinner of steak, shrimp, and chicken topped with fresh
crema and cilantro and rounded out with excellent guacamole, refried
beans, Mexican rice, and freshly made soft corn tortillas cost around
$12 and lasted two days in my house. I’m told the garlic lobsters
(market price) are fabulous, with the market price lower than
New Brunswick’s fine dining restaurants aren’t resting on their
laurels, either. Nova Terra, the stylish Nuevo Latino restaurant at 78
Albany Street (732-296-9696), offers a family-friendly rodizio, the
over-the-top Brazilian barbecue meal, every Wednesday evening. For
$28, the meal begins with assorted tapas, salads, tropical fruits, and
chips and salsas. Then "pasadors" carve and serve an assortment of
meats at each table. These include organic lamb, beef, pork loin,
turkey, natural chicken, ribs, and homemade linguisa sausage. Also
included are sides of Oaxacan black beans and rice, fried plantains,
Those wishing to experience the high-end restaurants, SoHo on George
at 33 George Street (732-296-0533) and the Frog & the Peach on Dennis
Court and Hiram Square (732-846-3216), without spending too much can
opt for daytime dining. SoHo on George offers a menu of 10 items
available indoors at their bar and outdoors at their sidewalk cafe
that range from hot pastrami (Niman Ranch) with white wine horseradish
mustard sauce and fries for $9 to buffalo hanger steak with a salad of
organic greens and gorgonzola for $14. The Frog & the Peach offers a
three-course weekday lunch for $20, with the menu changing each week.
One recent early spring menu consisted of creamy tomato and cannellini
bean soup with balsamic reduction, duck confit and arugula salad with
shaved cheddar and sherry vinaigrette, and a poached pear stuffed with
berries and cinnamon ice cream.
With such a range of delicious food at prices beginning at 80 cents,
in my book New Brunswick earns the title "Dining Hub City."
Pat Tanner’s restaurant reviews can be heard on "Dining Today with Pat
Tanner" Saturday mornings from 9 to 10 a.m. on Moneytalk 1350 AM radio
and over www.moneytalk1350.com.
Chardas Hungarian, 214 Somerset Street, New Brunswick. 732-246-9393.
Hungarian cuisine. BYOB. Gabriella Diosi, owner.
Open for lunch and dinner Thursday to Tuesday. Closed Wednesday.
Reservations. Cash only.
Entrees priced from $6-16, including chicken paprikash, $9.60.
Costa Chica Mexican Restaurant & Pizzeria, 314 Handy Street, New
Brunswick. 732-545-2255; fax, 732-545-1001. BYOB. Felix Rojas,
Open daily, 9 a.m. to midnight. VISA/MC and AmEx okay. Wheelchair
Entrees priced from $6-$20.
C.T.’s Bar B Que, 920 Hamilton Street. 732-418-8889. Calvin Todd,
Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. VISA, MC, AmEx okay.
The Frog and The Peach, Hiram Square, New Brunswick. 732-846-3216;
fax, 732-846-4820. American cuisine. Liquor license. Black and
Elizabeth Alger, co-owners.
Open for lunch on weekdays, for dinner daily. Reservations suggested.
VISA/MC and AmEx okay. Wheelchair accessible. No smoking section.
Private rooms for 80 to 100.
Entrees priced from $16-$27.
Los Molinos, 2 George Road, New Brunswick. 732-545-5955; fax,
732-545-1003. Spanish cuisine. Liquor license. Mercedes and Jaime
Open daily for dinner, Tuesday to Friday for lunch. Reservations okay.
VISA/MC and AmEx okay. Wheelchair accessible. No smoking section.
Entrees priced from $18 to $21.
Nova Terra, 78 Albany Street, New Brunswick. (www.terramomo.com).
732-296-9696; fax, 732-296-1616. South American eclectic cuisine.
Open for lunch and dinner daily, dinner only on Sunday. Reservations
okay. VISA/MC and AmEx okay. Wheelchair accessible. Smoking at bar. No
smoking section. Private rooms for up to 40.
Entrees priced from $16-$28, include ceviches (salmon, fluke, tilapia)
New world food – Cuban, Latin, and Caribbean. Open for lunch and
dinner Monday to Saturday (to midnight on weekends), dinner only on
Sunday. Live bands (salsa, Latin) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday
at 8 p.m., at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Sophie’s Bistro, 700 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. 732-545-7778;
fax, 732-545-7329. (www.sophiesbistro.net). French cuisine. Liquor
license. Peter Mack, owner.
Open Tuesday to Friday for lunch, Tuesday to Sunday for dinner. No
smoking section. Private rooms for up to 30 people.
Entrees priced from $13-$20, including coq au vin, $15.
Zafra Vegetarian Restaurant, 46 Paterson Street, Second Floor.
732-214-1005. Joe Febles, owner/chef.
Open currently for dinner on weekdays. Accepts reservations. VISA, MC,
AmEx okay. Not wheelchair accessible.
In your article entitled "New Brunswick Dining: From the Melting Pot"
you incorrectly have me, Ben Feilen, listed as the chef of Nova
Terra. I was never the chef at Nova Terra nor do I work there
anymore. One other correction, you have the phone numbers backwards.
The phone number is 732-296-1600 and the fax is 732-296-9696.
This correction was received on May 9, 2006. Ben Feilen’s name was
removed from Nova Terra.
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