A recent poll of frequent restaurant patrons by the Zagat Survey shows that we New Jerseyans enjoy dining out as much as ever. But, as a nod to the economy, we are doing it less frequently and we have placed new importance on value. My tactic for keeping the interest level up and the tab under contral is to frequent the area’s best, most interesting, and most unusual ethnic and regional restaurants. I’m not talking Italian, Chinese, or Mexican here — as much as I love them and patronize them — I mean a change-up from the same old same old. Below are some of my favorites. They comprise a world tour, more or less, and all but one are within half an hour’s drive of Route 1 and Alexander Road.
Smoke ‘n Dudes
Let’s start with the restaurant that is farthest geographically but features cuisine that is closest to home: good ol’ American barbecue. There’s nothing exotic about it, of course, other than the scarcity of really fine BBQ in these here parts. You’ll have to cross the Delaware to get it. Smoke’n Dudes Barbecue in Bensalem, PA, is a 30-minute drive from Lawrenceville. I’d happily drive twice that far for the low-and-slow hickory-smoked ribs, pork, and brisket that are the handiwork of the father-son team of Tom and Bill Christine (Tom’s wife, Barbara, and other son, Tucker, are also involved). Their 18-month-old restaurant is situated in a residential area just past Neshaminy Mall. Just keep a lookout for a deep red building with a smiling pig in a chef’s hat over the door.
This is actually the Christines’ second restaurant; they outgrew the one they established in Croydon, PA, back in 2002, after four years of Tom and three of his buddies winning barbecue competitions — including the Pennsylvania state championship in 2003. A second Smoke’n Dudes has opened in Bellmawr, not far from the Walt Whitman Bridge.
It all began 11 years ago in Ocean City, on the Jersey shore, says Tom Christine, a past president of the Mid-Atlantic BBQ Association, who then as now is an auto mechanic with an eponymous repair shop in Horsham, PA. “Barbecue was my hobby back then. My wife and I took our two boys to check out a barbecue competition there,” and the die was cast. His son Bill eventually trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. “It was Bill who talked me into selling food at the competitions,” Christine says. These days, the Smoke’n Dudes team sells their wares at larger competitions from New Hampshire to St. Petersburg, Florida, where attendance is typically between 30,000 and 40,000. What with the two stores, vending at the big competitions, and an increasing catering business, Smoke’n Dudes goes through 250 gallons of barbecue sauce every three weeks.
Step into the casual Bensalem eatery and your nose picks up the wonderful aroma of wood smoke mingled with molten animal fat (no surprise there), while your eyes tell you (surprise!) you’re inside a log cabin with walls of hefty, shellacked knotty pine half-logs, chairs with rustic twig backs, and red-and-white checked tablecloths. It’s bright, cheerful, light-filled, and spic-and-span.
The menu comprises the usual suspects, and the house sampler of ribs, pulled pork, and beef brisket with hush puppies and two sides is a good place to start. The ribs — tender, not fatty, and sporting the pink interior that’s a hallmark of real bbq technique — are of the proverbial falling-off-the-bone variety. But more than that, they and all the other meats stand apart for having just the right kiss of smoke instead of a wallop, a swipe of sauce rather than a deluge. The sauce itself is not overly sweet, and nothing is too salty.
I have never understood the appeal of Texas-style beef brisket. Even sampling the best the Houston area had to offer in the years my daughter was at school there, I remained unconvinced. Yet I enjoyed every bit of it at Smoke’n Dudes. Side dishes are uniformly good, too, and I’m a fusspot when it comes to mac & cheese (they serve the creamy variety) and potato salad (not too much mayo). The hush puppies are dangerously addictive.
Here’s a travel tip if you head out to the Bensalem eatery: although the street address is 3400 Neshaminy Boulevard, enter 5400 into your GPS. Otherwise, you’ll wind up at the nearby mall.
Smoke’n Dudes BBQ, 3400 Neshaminy Boulevard, Bensalem, PA. 215-752-5500 www.smokendudesbbq.com.
The Manors Corner Shopping Center in Lawrenceville (at the intersection of Lawrenceville-Pennington and Federal City roads) is the last place I expected to find exquisite sushi in casual yet sophisticated surroundings. Finding Masa 8 was truly like discovering a best-kept secret. The restaurant serves cooked Japanese fare as well — the steamed shrimp dumplings are one delicious example — but it is the sushi of owner-chef Owen Chen that really impresses. He got his start making sushi in New York 10 years ago at what he calls “huge upscale restaurants.” The sushi rolls he creates (along with the master chef he took with him from the city) emulate that New York style on a smaller scale, as does the decor. Chen himself designed the room’s cool, hip vibe. A color scheme of earth tones and black and moody lighting provided by votive-candle wall art make it inviting.
Chen and his wife, who is not formally involved in the restaurant, came up with the name “masa” because it means “justice” in Japanese, adding the numeral “8” because that’s the address within the shopping center. Chen was raised close to Taiwan and came to the U.S. 12 years ago.
On my first visit, I ran into my dentist, a gastronome with high standards. He unhesitatingly recommended the volcano roll, which is Chen’s signature and a tour de force of the cooked-seafood sushi genre with its interior of crabmeat, shrimp, and spicy eel sauce. After the roll is cut into pieces, the tops are seared with a blowtorch. I had hoped this happened at table, but Chen says that’s too dangerous. Still, the burnishing does add an extra dimension. Shrimp tempura and rainbow scallops are other specialties here. Every dish is beautifully presented by a courteous staff.
Masa 8 offers both classic sushi and sashimi and Americanized modern inventions. I am usually a purist, but something drew me to the lemon salmon roll, which contains both yellowtail (spicy) and salmon. Adding to the appeal of the mix are crunchy tempura flakes and a topping of jalapeno tobiko. But it is the citrus tang of paper-thin wedges of translucent lemon draped over each piece that elevates the dish. I am still craving it. Chen and his team also offer omekase, and I look forward to returning to see what they can do when it’s their choice. Masa 8 also offers a full line of teriyaki, tempura, and noodle dishes.
Masa 8, 160 Lawrenceville-Pennington Road, Manors Corner Shopping Center, Lawrenceville, 609-896-3338, www.masa8sushi.com.
In nearby Trenton there are two decades-old restaurants that have stood the test of time by not wavering from the longstanding culinary traditions of their respective homelands. Both Malaga, which dishes up Iberian classics on the Hamilton-Trenton border, and Blue Danube, the Eastern European stalwart in Trenton’s Chambersburg section, will celebrate their 20th anniversaries next year. Restaurant years being roughly equivalent to dog years, that’s quite a run.
Angela and Ramiro Rodriguez of Malaga grew up in the restaurant business in Spain’s Galicia region, where their father had a cantina. “I learned to love to cook from my grandmother,” says Angela, and those recipes form the basis of what she and her team of cooks prepare today. That heritage is evident in, for example, the best version of paella a la Valenciana I’ve had this side of the Atlantic. It comes to the table in a generous black cast-iron skillet chock-full of shellfish, chicken, and smoky chorizo. But the linchpin of any paella is the saffron rice, which, like sushi rice, is difficult to get right. Malaga’s is so masterful I would be content to plunk down the $20 price tag for the rice alone.
Jumbo shrimp in wine sauce is technically the house specialty, but I haven’t tried it. Most times, I can’t get past the paella or the special additions to the menu. On my last visit these included bocherones — fresh, supple white anchovies — and a decent Spanish tortilla, the potato, egg, and olive oil “cake” similar to, but to my mind superior to, the Italian frittata. I don’t know if crema Catalana is a signature dessert here, but it should be. Malaga excels in all the restaurant benchmarks, like excellent bread and superb coffee.
The dining room is a throwback to an earlier era but is well maintained and somehow fitting. Service, by the all male staff — many of a certain age who have been with the restaurant for 15 years or so — is a nice mix of Continental formality and warmth. Malaga is also beloved for the impressive flamenco dancing offered every first and third Wednesday nights. A few heads-ups if you haven’t been. A quick perusal of the list of appetizers can give the impression that the restaurant is expensive. Many are $13. But soups and salads are only $6, and the majority of entrees — all of which are gargantuan — are $20, and that includes the paellas. Not everything on the menu is of the same caliber as that esteemed dish. The house salad features wan tomatoes and chopped iceberg. The wine list is limited, although the house Riojas suit just fine, and pitchers of white and red sangria are so popular they fly off the bar in a steady stream. As their restaurant approaches its third decade, the Rodriguezes have plans to feature those charcoal grilled meat-fests known as rodizio and perhaps add a banquet hall — so even more of those sangrias can flow.
Malaga, 511 Lalor Street, Hamilton, 609-396-8878, www.malagarestaurant.com.
Food from the Eastern European countries through which the Danube River flows is the stock-in-trade of Margaret and Petru (Peter) Pulhac’s Blue Danube which, like Malaga, first saw the light of day in 1990. Peter is a native of Romania, but his stuffed cabbage, pierogies, chicken paprikas, beef goulash, sauerbraten, and Wiener schnitzel encompass Hungary, Germany, Poland, and Czech cooking as well. All of these are endangered species in our part of the state.
A good way to start is with the Danube sampler for two. Along with stuffed cabbage, pierogies, and noodles with fried cabbage it comes with mititei: sausage-shaped Romanian beef and veal meatballs. Potato pancakes are another option. Entrees, too, offer a number of classic assortments, all of them hearty and grandma-worthy, with sides like red cabbage and spaetzle. I have never ventured beyond the Eastern European specialties, but I always leave room for dessert. Apple strudel, Romanian crepes, rum-soaked Savarin — you can’t go wrong.
Patrons either love or hate the decor, which is cluttered to excess with Old World tchotchke. I say don’t change a thing. There has been a change in the kitchen over the last five years, however. Margaret Pulhac told me that up until then her husband, Peter, did all the cooking. Eleven years ago the couple hired a dishwasher named Abelino. Over time he not only learned to cook the restaurant’s specialties, he also became family, marrying Margaret’s niece. Abelino is the cook these days, with Peter doing the prep work, buying, and butchering.
Blue Danube, 538 Adeline Street, Trenton, 609-393-6133, www.bluedanuberestaurant.com.
Another husband and wife team is behind Soonja’s in Princeton. Sam and Ann Lee — both are from Korea and both have adopted American first names — took over from the original owner, Soonja, in 1998, three years after it debuted. It is their first restaurant, and Ann Lee is proud that theirs was the first establishment in town to feature Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese fare. I have several confessions to make about my relationship with Soonja’s. In the beginning, I went specifically for its Korean fare, especially the kim chee and bi bim bop. Although almost everyone I know favors the sushi there, I never tried it. I also bypassed the Thai dishes. Then, too, as with some long-term personal relationships, I began to take Soonja’s for granted and began flirting with the bigger, glitzier Korean restaurants along the Route 1 corridor north of Princeton. It soon fell off my regular restaurant rounds.
Over the last year I have reconnected with this restaurant, and — again analogous to some personal relationships — I have a new, deeper regard for it. I like its comfortably worn rooms, it’s low-key presence. Most of all, I have returned for the kim chee, the bi bim bop, and the Korean dumplings called mandoo. That’s my next confession: I still ignore virtually everything else on the menu. I don’t know what it is about bi bim bop, a seemingly simple dish of rice topped with bits of marinated grilled beef, shredded carrots and daikon, sprouts, water spinach, and shiitakes with (the piece de resistance) with slivers of egg omelette perched on top, but I must have it at least once a month. (I suspect the combo is high in umami, the fifth sensation our tastebuds can detect.) Soonja’s used to make it with a fried egg on top, and will still do this on request for $1 extra.
Soonja’s, 244 Alexander Street, Princeton, 609-924-9260, www.soonjasushi.com.
Head north on Route 27 from Princeton and you have your pick of any number of hole-in-the-wall, strip mall Indian eateries with specialties from many regions of that vast country. My favorite — and I am not alone in this regard — is Dosa Grill near Cozzens Lane in North Brunswick. The setting is utilitarian, but bright and well kept. Despite being restricted to South Indian vegetarian fare, the menu here is quite varied, with categories for biryanis and other rice specialties, vegetable curries, various uthappam (rice pancakes), and, of course, dosas. I love these huge, fermented crepes, whether filled with potatoes, vegetables, or cheese. Even my husband, who isn’t a fan of Indian food, dines happy at Dosa Grill.
Meals are incredible bargains here, chief among them the dinner thali, a veritable feast for $11. It is anchored by three vegetable stews of the day, plus two kinds of Indian bread, two rice preparations, chutneys, sambar, a modest dessert, and Madras coffee. The place is almost always packed, especially by Indian families. Nevertheless, service is polite — and patient with the uninitiated who ask a lot of questions. One note: no alcohol is allowed on premises.
Dosa Grill, which just celebrated its eighth anniversary on Sunday, May 3, is the brainchild of Murugan Perumalsamy, 32, who trained at hotel school back in his native land. He has since taken as partner the restaurant’s lead chef, Suresh Ayyappan.
Dosa Grill, 1980 Route 27, North Brunswick, 732-422-6800, www.dosagrill.com.
De Island Breeze
Continue up Route 27, make a left at Franklin Boulevard and feel De Island Breeze wafting from this cheerful, colorful Caribbean restaurant (and lounge and grocery) in Somerset. Although much of the menu leans to Jamaican jerk and curry dishes (with Red Stripe beer as one fitting beverage option), the section of Chinese-Guyanese dishes hints at the interesting background of the family behind this four-year-old spot.
Maggie and Carlton Bharrat hail from Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. Carlton is Indian-Guyanese; Maggie is Irish-Indian-Guyanese. Fifteen years ago they purchased the lot where their restaurant-cum-market now stands. Before they opened the restaurant four years ago, Maggie did takeout. For the past 23 years Carlton has run his IT firm by day and can sometimes be found behind the grocery counter in the evenings. The restaurant is Maggie’s domain. She says she “tagged” a “great Jamaican chef for weekend breakfasts,” and, indeed the ackee and saltfish (Jamaica’s national dish) is a big draw. “Guyanese food has many influences,” she says proudly, “including African, Caribbean, and Chinese.”
The Bharrats have three children. The eldest, a daughter who will graduate next year from Drexel University with a degree in hospitality, is, according to her mother, “a real entrepreneur” and hopes to open a family restaurant in Philadelphia. Their youngest, a six-year-old boy, is “the apple of everyone’s eye,” including his 16-year-old sister. He can often be found at the restaurant on weekends where, Maggie Bharrat says, “he’s learning to be sociable and to mingle with people from many cultural backgrounds.”
Dining at De Island Breeze is a delicious change of pace, and if you enjoy eating goat, as I do, you’ll find the curry goat dinner ($15) a real treat. Tender, flavorful, generous, just spicy enough, it comes with rice, fried plantains, and a salad of cooked cabbage and carrots.
The dining room conjures the Caribbean with walls painted cheery orange and yellow, accented by blue and white linens on tables that are spaced nicely apart. On the other side of the entrance is the lounge, where Friday nights there’s a DJ who draws a younger crowd. Saturday, with a live band and a DJ, attracts a more mature crowd, according to Maggie, and Sunday is Jamaican Oldies night.
De Island Breeze, 676 Franklin Boulevard, Somerset, 732-214-8611, www.DeIslandBreeze.com.
The newest restaurant to be added to my list of interesting ethnics is Tete Peruvian & International Cuisine, not far from the courthouse in New Brunswick. Like Guyanese food, Peruvian is a delicious convergence of many cultures, among them Incan, Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian — as the menu proudly proclaims. In fact, it is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world.
Owner Johnny Villaviciencio, who came to the U.S. from Lima in 2001, named his tiny spot after his mother, Teresa, the nickname for which is Tete. He is the main chef, having worked for the Cheesecake Factory for seven years. Armed with his mother’s recipes, he opened his place last October. His clientele comprise many different nationalities, races, and economic strata, just like Peru. “Believe it or not, we even have Peruvian customers!” he says. “The Peruvian community is very small in this area, so I didn’t expect that. When I opened, it was important to me to introduce my food to new people, to show that Peruvian food is good food.”
I don’t need any convincing. I have long been a fan of papas a la huancaina, a dish of boiled potatoes covered with a creamy puree of cheese and spicy yellow chili peppers (aji amarillo). At Tete, penne pasta replaces the potatoes and grilled chicken is added — all for just $8. Among the most popular dishes are ceviche, lomito saltado (sliced smoked beef, red onions, and tomatoes mixed with French fries and served with rice), and la butifarra (Peruvian ham on a Portuguese roll). But don’t overlook the Italian-Peruvian spaghetti dishes called tallarines, nor the Chinese-Peruvian (Chaufa) specialties. Each day sees specials as well, although Villaviciencio says the Latin beef stew with two Peruvian peppers has proved so popular he offers it Monday through Friday.
Currently, most of the weekday patrons from nearby Johnson & Johnson and Wachovia and Commerce banks opt for takeout, since seating is limited to three stools at a counter and, at best, four small tables. But Villaviciencio has plans to move the counter back and reduce the size of the kitchen to allow more dining space.
Tete Peruvian, 7 Spring Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-1502, www.cateringbytete.com.
Delta’s, also in New Brunswick, has been dishing up what some call neo-soul food in gorgeous, white-tablecloth surroundings for about a decade now. Executive chef Willie Stafford, who got his culinary training at the C.I.A. in 1978 and 1979, has been there almost as long. Standards such as catfish, gumbo, barbecue ribs, smothered chicken, and country-fried steak are joined by upstarts like collard green dip, Buffalo wings, and pecan-crusted salmon. The large menu is, in all honesty, hit and miss, although Delta’s has the only fried catfish I’ll eat: it doesn’t have that muddy taste so often encountered. And the tab can climb here if you’re not careful. My weakness for sweet potato desserts often does that. Here they come in the form of pie, cheesecake, and, on weekends, fritters.
I don’t know which I like better about Delta’s, the food or the stylish surroundings of gleaming wood (especially the carved bar) and the soaring brick walls. Owners Coretta King and Joshua Suggs feature live R&B every Friday and live jazz every Saturday. For dining, though, be aware that, as stated on the website, you have your table for exactly two hours, not more.
Delta’s, 19 Dennis Street, New Brunswick, 732-249-1551, www.deltasrestaurant.com.
Seven Hills of Istanbul
Our last two stops on our whirlwind tour are both in Highland Park and, at first glance, their offerings might appear similar. Pithari Taverna specializes in Greek fare and Seven Hills of Istanbul Turkish. Spreads of pureed eggplant, cucumber, and chickpeas, skewered grilled meats, stuffed grape leaves, and desserts of the phyllo-honey-nut variety are common to both. But Pithari Taverna leans heavily to Mediterranean influences, while 7 Hills, like Turkey itself, is influenced more by the Middle East.
Let’s begin with Seven Hills. In 1995, Hasan Gedlec, whose family owned restaurants in Turkey, moved his wife and children from Bodrum and four years later opened this restaurant, which is proudly decorated with Turkish rugs, brass samovars, hammered copper occasional tables, and bejeweled pendant lamps.
These days it’s managed by son Kadri Gedlec, but it still serves up easy-to-like versions of what is more commonly known as hummus, baba ganoush, and stuffed grape leaves. But the kebaps (kabobs) rule here, especially the Iskender kebap, an amalgam of marinated, thin-sliced lamb and beef roasted on a spit and shaved (similar to schwarma). Served over Turkish bread moistened with yogurt and plum tomato, it makes for one wet, salty, irresistible treat. Matching it in deliciousness is the chicken combo platter: four succulent preparations, including a chicken version of Iskender kebap made with ground, pressed chicken. Among the other Turkish specialties are the famous coffee, which is presented with fanfare, and a dessert that translates as bottom-of-the-pot pudding.
Seven Hills of Istanbul, 441 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, 732-777-9711, www.7hillsofistanbul.com.
What you won’t get a lot of at Seven Hills of Istanbul is seafood. There are exactly three offerings — salmon, branzino, and Mediterranean sea bream (orata), but I wouldn’t seek out this restaurant for fish. Instead, I’d head just up the road to Pithari Taverna, a relative newcomer at less than three years old. But owners Tassos and Chrisanthe Stefanopoulos have operated their Greek food shop, New Athens Corner, just next door for the last 10 years. The couple named the restaurant for the ancient Attic clay pots of that name. He hails from Patras; she from the island of Lemnos in the Aegean. He designed the menu; she makes the desserts, among which is an exemplary baklava.
Where Greek food parts ways with Turkish is in simplicity of preparation. And nowhere is that more evident than with seafood. Pithari Taverna offers delicious evidence, with sublime grilled octopus, jumbo shrimp called garides, calamari several ways, white snapper, porgy, bakalao (salt cod), and the prized red mullet called barbounia. The extensive list of mezes shines, too, from grape leaves with thick, lush yogurt to dense, textured hummus, and excellent winy olives. Traditionalists can also get their fill of mousakas (their spelling), pastitsio, and spanakopita at this airy, light-filled space that, with its color scheme of deep Aegean blue and chalky white, its two walls of French doors, its stone patio, and its easygoing vibe, effectively replicates the feel of a Greek taverna right here in the U.S. 1 corridor.
Pithari Taverna, 28 Woodbridge Avenue, Highland Park, 732-572-0616, www.pitharitaverna.net.
Pat Tanner’s restaurant reviews and weekly food blog can be found at www.newjerseylife.com. She is the South Jersey editor of the 2009/10 Zagat NJ Restaurants guide and the editor of the 2009/10 NJ Shore Restaurants pocket guide.
Spring Dining Sponsors
Deliteful Foods, 4040 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville. 609-586-7122. www.delitefulfood.com. See ad, page 18.
Fernbrook Bed & Breakfast, 144 Bordentown-Georgetown Road, Chesterfield. 609-298-3868. See ad, page 14.
Ichiban, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-683-8323. See ad, page 17.
Main Street, 301 North Harrison Street. 609-921-2777. See ad, page 14.
Marcello’s Restaurant, 206 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. 609-298-8360. See ad, page 16.
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On the Bone, 4355 Route 1 At Ridge Road, Princeton. 609-945-2501. See ad, page 13.
Szechuan House, 2022 Nottingham Way, Hamilton. 609-890-7600. See ad, page 14.
Terhune Orchards, 330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton. 609-924-2310. See ad, page 15.
Teriyaki Boy, 3535 US Route 1, Princeton. 609-897-7979. See ad, page 15.
Tre Piani, 120 Rockingham Row Forrestal Village, Princeton. 609-452-1515. www.trepiani.com. See ad, page 15.