C.T.’s Bar-B-Que

Chardas Hungarian Restaurant

Zafra for Vegetarians

Sophie’s Bistro

Los Molinos

Costa Chica

Nova Terra

Spring Dining

Correction

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

immigrant populations.

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.

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C.T.’s Bar-B-Que

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."

Top Of Page
Chardas Hungarian 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.

Top Of Page
Zafra for Vegetarians

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).

Top Of Page
Sophie’s Bistro

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

fans do).

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.

Top Of Page
Los Molinos

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

with shrimp.

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.

Top Of Page
Costa Chica

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

elsewhere.

Top Of Page
Nova Terra

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,

and yucca.

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.

Top Of Page
Spring Dining

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,

owner/chef.

Open daily, 9 a.m. to midnight. VISA/MC and AmEx okay. Wheelchair

accessible.

Entrees priced from $6-$20.

C.T.’s Bar B Que, 920 Hamilton Street. 732-418-8889. Calvin Todd,

owner-chef.

Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. VISA, MC, AmEx okay.

Wheelchair accessible.

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

Villarino, owners.

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.

Liquor license.

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)

$9-$18.

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.

Top Of Page
Correction

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.

Thanks,

Ben Feilen

This correction was received on May 9, 2006. Ben Feilen’s name was

removed from Nova Terra.


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