Maybe it’s just a reflection of the economy, but these days we’re seeing the opening — and thriving — of many more casual, mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants than we are grand dining palaces. Two cases in point profiled recently in U.S. 1: Da’s Thai restaurant in Hopewell and Efe’s Mediterranean in Princeton (U.S. 1, March 14, 2012). These sorts of places have more in common than just featuring well-priced fare from foreign shores and being BYOB. The six I profile here (in alphabetical order) are all owned and run by hardworking families that are passionate about sharing their food and their culture, whether it’s that of Europe, Asia, or South or Central America.

Not to worry, though: We do have some biggies coming online in the next months and years. Among these is a restaurant — purportedly American farm-to-table — that will rise from the virtual ashes of Lahiere’s. If you have passed by the Witherspoon Street site in downtown Princeton recently, you’ve seen how it is currently little more than a facade, having been almost completely demolished.

In Hopewell, Brick House Tavern is in the works by the folks behind Double Brook Farm (which I profiled in the July 13, 2011, issue of U.S. 1). One of celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s chain of casual Bobby’s Burger Palaces is slated soon for MarketFair, with another growing national franchise, Seasons52, due there in spring, 2014.

The Ryland Inn — arguably New Jersey’s most famous restaurant, which closed in 2007 — will reopen this summer in Whitehouse (Hunterdon County) under new owners and with a new chef. That chef, Anthony Buco, is familiar to many of us in this area, having for many years been executive chef at New Brunswick’s Stage Left restaurant.

Here are my pick of six family owned and operated restaurants that won’t break your budget while you enjoy cuisine that’s anything but cookie cutter:

Allentown:

The Alps Bistro

There are so few German restaurants left in New Jersey that any one that comes along is news. When I began to receive reports on the Alps Bistro in Allentown, I assumed it was located in the old mill on this sweet Monmouth County town’s Main Street that had housed German restaurants for decades. Not so. Its eight tables are in a casual but charming storefront location further up the street. The fare includes all the German and Austrian staples, but also a few Polish and even Hungarian dishes, such as chicken paprikash. These come with typical sides like German potato salad, spaetzle, red cabbage, and sauerkraut.

Perhaps the biggest draw of the bistro, though, is the amiable, hospitable couple behind it, Marty and Ginger Locke. “We opened on July 6, 2010,” Ginger Locke recalls. “I can’t believe we’re coming up on our two-year anniversary! Sometimes it seems it was yesterday; sometimes — like at the end of a Sunday night when we’re exhausted — it seems like 40 years.”

Since every chef and restaurant owner I know tells me that September, 2010, is when the recession hit them hard, I ask what that first summer was like. “The summer was and still is an odd time for us. Lots of people drive through town on their way to the shore, but they’re not stopping. Fall is when our business kicks into gear. Think about the food we offer: it’s robust. Sure, we offer fish dishes and salads and quiches, but our best sellers like sauerbraten and roulade — these are warm, satisfying, and hearty.”

The Lockes did not set out to open a restaurant in Allentown. “We were hoping to purchase an inn in Vermont, but that didn’t work out,” Ginger Locke says. So when the space that had been the Garden Tea Room became available, they jumped in. Though both are good home cooks, they brought in a professional chef, Linda Irwin, from day one. “But mostly we use family recipes,” she says. “It started with our own homes, growing up.” Both come from Queens, NY, though they met in New Jersey.

Ginger, 54, is of German-Swiss heritage; Marty Locke, 57, is Russian-Polish. “The potato pancakes are my husband’s mom’s recipe, so they’re Polish,” she offers as one example. Recently, though, they accommodated a customer’s request for roesti — “the Swiss version of hash browns,” she calls them — drawing upon her Swiss genes. The Lockes, who live in Jackson, met in 1985 and have been married for 12 years.

The bistro has amassed a loyal following of regulars. “So many have become personal friends, which makes it all the sweeter,” Ginger Locke offers. “A large number come from the nearby retirement communities. Sometimes the husband served in the military in Germany, or it’s their own family background. But we get a real cross-section. We have had eight-year-old kids who demand to have their birthday parties in the restaurant!”

Though sauerbraten is by far the most popular dish, Ginger Locke also mentions pork osso buco and smoked pork chops. “Plus our chicken paprikash, which we sometimes offer. And last week people went nuts over a special of pan-seared duck breast with mustard-vinegar glaze.” The Alps Bistro has been serving breakfast on Saturday and Sunday for almost a year now. “Good old American fare,” she says, “as well as not-so-usual European.” Among these are crepes with jam or Nutella, or filled with smoked ham, apples, and Swiss cheese.

The restaurant does not have a website but is on Facebook. If you ‘like’ them there, the weekly specials menu will automatically appear in your inbox, via www.americantowns.com. (To view the specials menu directly, just click through NJ, Allentown, and Events Calendar.)

The Alps Bistro, 4 South Main Street, Allentown, 609-223-0335. www.facebook.com/pages/The-Alps-Bistro/121458154540947

Hopewell:

Antimo’s

There has been a pizza shop or casual Italian restaurant in this spot at the Hopewell Valley Square shopping center for years now. It started off as Sansone’s. Then, still staying in the same family, it morphed to Antimo’s a few years back when Antimo Iovine became the sole owner. He has been making changes to the menu and the decor ever since. His latest innovation — a real game changer — was to bring on board Nino Galastro last winter to make fresh pasta.

The cheerful and personable Galastro, an Italian native and veteran of Eno Terra in Kingston, can often be seen at his pasta-making station just inside the door, rolling, cutting, shaping, and filling everything from fettuccine, pappardelle, and rigatoni to agnolotti with prosciutto and fresh ricotta, and lobster ravioli.

Those ravioli will be napped with Antimo Iovine’s pink cream sauce. He and his brother, Benny, make everything else on the extensive menu, including the pizzas and pizza dough. “My uncle owned the place and taught me years ago,” says the 38-year-old Iovine.

“I bought it with partners when I was 19.” But he had been making pizzas at his father’s restaurant, Rudolfo’s in New Brunswick, since he was 12. “Here, one by one my partners left. I wanted to change the menu. I had different ideas. So, in 2006, ’07 I became sole owner.”

But Antimo’s is still very much a family enterprise. “My brother Benny and then my brother Pasquale joined me,” he says, adding, “My sister Ida had worked here, but she left to work for Gucci.” Benny Iovine lives within walking distance of the restaurant. Antimo and his wife, Daniella, live in Monmouth Junction with their two boys, ages ten and nine. The couple has been married 11 years. Daniella Iovine is a pharmacist in Pennington but also helps at the restaurant.

“My brothers and I switch off, sharing the cooking and managing,” Antimo Iovine says. “Like today, I’m cooking. Tomorrow, I make pizza. It keeps us from getting bored.” He estimates that pizza accounts for 40 percent of sales; 60 percent is everything else, including traditional pasta dishes and Nino Galastro’s fresh pasta specialties. “I always liked the idea of making fresh pasta,” Iovine explains, “but it’s too time consuming. I met Nino back in October, when he came in for a slice of pizza. I wasn’t really so interested in hiring anybody at the time, but when he mentioned fresh pasta, well.” Iovine calls his executive pasta maker “a good guy and a great soul.”

Antimo Iovine was born in Naples, Italy. His family moved to New York when he was seven, but, he says, “we went back every year.” Iovines in the Old Country were in the food business, too, owning grocery stores and butcher shops. From New York, his family moved to North Brunswick, where Antimo and his siblings attended school.

During the changeover from Sansone’s to Antimo’s, Iovine renovated both the dining room and the kitchen. Then, two years ago, he added patio space that seats 28. On one recent Friday night, a multi-generational party was in full swing out there, while the dining room was full to overflowing, and the take-out business was bustling. Many people were regulars. Antimo thinks his customers return because of the quality of the food — especially the quality-to-price ratio — and the friendly service.

Besides the fresh pasta dishes, Iovine says that other specialties that have won him a following include house-made sausage and two lines of pizza: thin-crust and Benny’s special “Brooklyn” pies. “And we use all-natural ingredients, and try to use as much local as possible,” he says, citing Griggstown Farm and both Double Brook Farm and Sansone’s Farm Market in Hopewell as sometime purveyors. Business has been so good that Iovine is considering expanding into the adjacent space, adding on to the dining room. “Or expanding to the patio to make it more private,” he says. Though the project is in negotiation, he is mindful of getting too big. “I don’t want to jeopardize the quality so we might eventually decide to keep it the size it is,” he says.

Antimo’s Italian Kitchen, 52 East Broad Street, Hopewell, 609-466-3333. www.antimositaliankitchen.com

Lambertville: El Tule

The Egovil family emigrated from Peru 20 years ago, but when they opened El Tule in February 2011, they offered what they thought most people would want: Mexican food. They still do, but in short order added the fare of their homeland as well.

Jack Egovil, who is general manager of an enterprise that includes his mother, Carmen, father Fausto, siblings Silvia and Mechelle, and brother-in-law, Said Anguino, explained how the restaurant came into being. “My family used to go to church in Lambertville and through that came to know the town,” he says. “My mom has always had a thing for cooking. One day we heard that a space that had been restaurants — first, 49 North Main and then a taqueria for a year — that the guy wanted to sell. We started with Mexican and saw the opportunity to offer Peruvian. Little by little, we tested to see how people would respond.” He adds that the timing was right, since Peruvian cuisine — with its ceviches, many varieties of indigenous potatoes and chile peppers, quinoa, and complex culinary tradition going back to the Incas — seems to be having its moment in the spotlight.

As for the location, Egovil points out, “Lambertville is rich in ethnic restaurants of every variety and we find this appealing. We are very taken by how welcoming everyone in town is, and we’re so happy that people have responded to us.” Many of El Tule’s regulars became fans of the cuisine on their travels to Peru. Until now, they have had to travel to New York or far-flung corners of New Jersey to find it. “Some drive two hours just to try our food,” he says. “A lot of others are what I would call ‘foodies’ who are interested in whatever’s new.”

One of the factors Egovil thinks adds to the restaurant’s popularity is, as he says, “you can come and have a few tacos, or you can impress a date with a fabulous meal.” Everything on the Mexican side of the menu is traditional. “My older sister, Mechelle, is married to a Mexican,” he goes on. “Her husband, Said Anguino, is our Mexican cook, so everything on that side of the menu is authentic. Me, before now my experience with Mexican food was really Tex-Mex, which I didn’t care for. Too heavy, greasy. Said’s is authentic Mexican, which is neither.”

As for the Peruvian offerings, these are the bailiwick of his mother, Carmen, and they combine the traditional with modern twists. Chief among these are a selection of ceviches, considered the national dish of Peru, but also classic potato dishes like papas rellenas and papas a la Huancaina, and a host of traditional soups, stews, and grilled meat and seafood dishes.

“Everything on our menu is what you’d be served in Lima today,” Egovil says. “Peru is very rich when it comes to food. There are different styles from the coast, the Andes, and the tropical forests. My mom’s been returning to Peru to check out things and to take classes.” He adds that other hallmarks of Peruvian cuisine are that “it’s very fresh and very nutritious, while being delicious.” Hence, everything is made a la minute. As if that’s not enough, the Egovils continue to innovate. “Every three weeks we add new things,” he says. “Before we decide to add a dish to the menu, we all try it and offer our opinions.”

For such a small, casual place, the care taken with presentation is startling. An Inca-style quinoa salad, for example, comes on a stylish white porcelain rectangle with edges that curl upward. The salad is formed into a precise pyramid and is artfully accompanied by a colorful tangle of baby lettuce with tiny boiled potatoes and a dollop of cream. “My mom is pretty much an artist when it comes to presenting the food,” says her proud son.

The Egovils want their customers to go beyond simple enjoyment of their food. “I want people to have a cultural experience when they come here,” Jack Egovil says. “We’re proud of our family’s roots.” So the deep-orange walls are decked out with traditional artifacts, and under each glass-topped table is a brightly colored woven fabric of traditional design. Each of the tapestries on the wall is from a different area of Peru. “People ask about them and I like it when they do,” Egovil says, “that way they can experience our culture, too.” He was 16 when his family came to the U.S. in 1992, and he returns there often.

The family is from Lima, although mom Carmen’s family is from northern Peru. Jack Egovil is currently working on his MBA and also works for the Bucks County Department of Health. Each evening he goes over the restaurant’s receipts, and reports that the split between Mexican and Peruvian food served is 50-50. “Peruvian is what attracts people to the restaurant. But you can’t believe the amount of tacos we sell by the end of the night,” he says with a laugh. At this point, El Tule is so popular that reservations are strongly recommended on weekends to dine at this intimate place, which seats 35 inside and 25 to 30 on the patio.

Still, Jack Egovil says, launching and running a restaurant has been a roller coaster ride. “It’s a lot of hard work, but that makes us want to innovate even more.” The family completely redid the space when they took it over at the end of 2010, and another renovation — the installation of a kitchen ventilation hood — is just about finished. The restaurant has been operating on weekends only on a special temporary permit, and is scheduled to return to normal operations on May 9. (Calling ahead to confirm is highly recommended.)

El Tule Authentic Mexican and Peruvian Restaurant, 49 North Main Street, Lambertville, 609-773-0007. www.eltulerestaurant.com

Hightstown: Mercer Street Charcoal Grill

Nydza Santiago, who co-owns Mercer Street Grill with her husband, Carlos Guerrero, reports that when their casual eatery in downtown Hightstown was reviewed by the Trenton Times shortly after they opened in November, 2011, they were surprised but pleased to receive the attention. “That really upped our profile,” Santiago says. “Business had started slow, but has picked up noticeably since February.”

Imagine their astonishment, then, when they were reviewed by the New York Times a few months later. Though the grill tempts locals with American deli and diner favorites like hamburgers, Italian hoagies, and sandwiches from BLTs to pastrami, it is Carlos Guerrero’s takes on Brazilian and Portuguese barbecue dishes that are getting the attention. “Among the typical American sandwiches, customer favorites are the po’ boy and the pulled pork,” Santiago reports, “but our Cuban sandwich is considered really special.”

Ditto, the fried sweet plantains and the charcoal-grilled skirt steak, served with two side orders that may include rice, beans, homemade potato chips, or fresh vegetables — or those plantains. Guerrero, 48, is the main cook. Santiago, 47, is at the restaurant in the evenings, doing most of the financial and administrative work. During the day she works as an administrative assistant in Robbinsville. Prior to opening the grill, Guerrero owned a trucking company in Elizabeth that employed 14. But the desire to have his own restaurant came from living and working in Newark’s Ironbound section. “Carlos came to the U.S. from Ecuador when he was 18,” Santiago relates, “and lived in Newark with his parents. He loved the Ironbound and loved the Portuguese food there.”

Guerrero’s take on flan has also drawn raves. “The recipe is Carlos’ mother’s,” his wife says. “The exceptionally silky texture comes from how it is mixed and from cooking it in a water bath.” She points out that the grill’s meats are delivered fresh, never frozen, twice a week, and that they start with dried beans, not canned. “Everything — everything — is made from scratch. Many of our ingredients come from Portuguese producers up in Newark,” she adds. Their coffee comes from a roaster in Toms River. “Behind it is a gentleman from Spain who sources and roasts the beans himself,” Santiago says proudly.

It is because of this care — and the warm service that Mercer Street Grill has been praised for — that the place now boasts what she calls a good mix of regulars and newcomers. “A lot of families come, but also couples and those 55 and older. We’ve been doing a lot of catering. Just this past Friday, we did the fish fry for the Methodist church right up the street — fish, chicken, et cetera for 120 people. And we’ve catered for the Peddie School. We’re also getting a lot more reservations for parties held at the restaurant. So, we’ve been keeping busy.”

Guerrero is also planning to add more fish dishes to the menu, including tilapia with onions, peppers, and tomatoes all wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked directly in the fire.

The eatery, which seats 38 inside, was last home to the Slowdown Cafe. Santiago and Guerrero renovated the space to make it light, airy, and cheerful. “We did the renovations ourselves — Carlos the repairs and the painting, and I decorated,” Santiago says. The couple has been married three years, though they’ve been together for seven. (She has children by a previous marriage.)

“I’m Puerto Rican. I was born in the U.S. but raised and went to school, including college, in Puerto Rico.” “We’re a wild mix,” she says of her and her husband, by way of explaining the logic behind their latest endeavor.

Mercer Street Charcoal Grill & Deli, 110 Mercer Street, Hightstown, 609-308-2159. www.mercerstgrill.com

Robbinsville:

Ploy Siam

This beautifully appointed Thai place is another one that opened just as the economy — and the restaurant business — was tanking: September, 2010. “Surprisingly, we were busy for the first three months,” says Bill Hurley, who early in our conversation describes himself as the restaurant’s bookkeeper, but then later on also as the general manager, and finally relates how he bought the restaurant for his wife, Kannika. (More about that to follow.)

But getting back to the early days, he says that business tapered off after that first Christmas. “These days we’re as busy as — but not more busy than — other restaurants in the immediate area,” he says. Early on the restaurant was faulted for slow service. “When the restaurant was full, the kitchen would get backed up. But we’ve hired a sous chef/chef’s helper and this has alleviated the situation,” he says.

In fact, the 125-seat restaurant that for many years had been a Chinese restaurant is amassing more and more regulars. “We have people who come three or four times a month now. The food has never been an issue — everyone seems to love the food. So it’s frustrating for us when people come in for the first time and say, ‘we had no idea you were here.’”

What separates Ploy Siam from other Thai restaurants, Hurley says, is “We cook authentic Thai, not ‘Thai style.’ We don’t modify dishes for American tastes, which often happens with, for example, Chinese or Mexican food. Over half our customers have some tie to Thailand: either they’re GIs, former teachers, or business people. They know ours is authentic. We have a couple of women in the kitchen whose job is just to chop the fresh vegetables we use.” Fresh herbs, spices, and vegetables are, he says, hallmarks of good Thai cooking.

Ploy Siam had a table for the first time at this year’s Communiversity in Princeton. “From the opening until 4:30 we had a line of 15 to 20 people at any given time,” Hurley says. “One fellow came back and purchased food three times, then showed up at the restaurant that night!” On the menu that day were Pad Thai (naturally), chicken satay, and satay noue, which Hurley describes as beef on little bamboo skewers with special sauce and condiment on the side. His personal favorite from the menu, which includes all the traditional soups, curries, and noodle and rice dishes, is steamed salmon with ginger.

Hurley identifies Worowut Chantomuk as head chef, adding that “a lot of the managing of the restaurant falls to him as well.” Chantomuk also is responsible for the restaurant’s stunning design, which includes a 20-foot long fountain running down the center of the room that’s a series of graduated pottery urns, as well as many handsome dark wood elements accented by traditional red textiles and gold ornamentation. “We got everything but the tables and chairs from Thailand — all the decorations,” says Hurley. “We filled a ship container and had it sent directly to our back door.”

Hurley’s wife, Kannika, is the hostess. “Kannika is Thai. She spent her first 16 years in Thailand. I’ve know her aunt for a long time, and used to send money for Kannika’s tuition,” he says, explaining that schooling is free only through third grade there. “For college, Kannika went to Mercer County College, earning an associate’s degree in computers. She returned to Thailand but couldn’t find work, so returned and became a U.S. citizen.” At that point, the two had known each other for almost 15 years. The pair were married on October 5, 2001 and have a daughter, Lily, who will be seven in August. “Her Thai name is ‘Ploy,” says this proud father, “which means gemstone. So we named the restaurant after her.”

Bill Hurley grew up in Princeton, went to Princeton High School (and for a short time the Lawrenceville School). He graduated from Duke University. “I was a physicist for six months and found out I hated it,” he says. “Then I went into construction with my father, and now, having retired, I’m in the restaurant business! In between, I was in investing and real estate. I fixed up and turned over properties.”

Ploy Siam, 1041 Washington Boulevard (Foxmoor Shopping Center), Robbinsville, 609-371-9960. www.ploysiamthaicuisine.com

Highland Park:

Tete Bistronomie

I first wrote about Tete for U.S. 1 back in 2009, when it was a tiny, mostly takeout spot in downtown New Brunswick featuring homespun Peruvian fare. Even then owners Johnny Villavicencio and Fabian Chacon were looking for a bigger spot. In August, 2010, they opened this 60-seat BYO in Highland Park.

“New Brunswick was good to us for lunch and for fast food for those who work there, but not so much for dinner,” Villavicencio says. “We wanted a sit-down restaurant, more for people who want to bring their own wine to dinner.” But, he acknowledges, they also have more competition in Highland Park. “In the immediate area we have Japanese, Thai, Greek, and Italian restaurants.”

So imagine his surprise when the New York Times selected Tete for a review. “I was so surprised!” he says. “It was really good for us; we really increased our sales.”

While Tete is still an uber-casual space, it stands out for, Villavicencio says, “our ceviches, no doubt about it! And our strip steak tico taco. It’s a wrap served Spanish style, with rice and beans, onion, tomatoes, sauce, and mayonnaise.” But his personal favorite — and his heart — is with the ceviche. “One-hundred percent. For Peruvians, this is our baseline. Fabian and I have been changing/tweaking the classic, little by little, since our first restaurant. Right now, I think we’ve perfected it. This is as good as it gets!” The pair also cater parties, about one a week (“which is all we can handle”), including weddings, communions, and quinceanera parties.

Villavicencio and Chacon share the cooking duties. Villavicencio, 42, named the restaurant after his mother, Teresa, whose nickname is Tete. Much of his family, including his mother, is based in the U.S., though he has one sister still in Ecuador. “My mom helps out at the restaurant on Friday and Saturday,” he says with pride. “She was a good teacher for everything including, but not only, cooking. Here, she’s able to pick apart the flavors, making sure that we do everything correctly. She tells me, ‘Johnny, you’re a great chef,’ but I’m always thinking that I will never be on her level.”

Villavicencio graciously told me that a lot of regulars from the Princeton area that he picked up because of my U.S. 1 story have followed him to Highland Park. “Those who came kept telling us, you have to open up a sit-down restaurant. Well, we did. Now they’re telling us we have to open in Princeton! People tell us, look, Efe’s did it.”

In fact, the partners have another project underway: a second location in Metuchen. “It will be a different concept, though. Metuchen has a number of really fancy restaurants, so we wanted to bring something different. Sometimes when you go out, you just want a sandwich or salad — something to grab and go. The main mix will be the same: Peruvian and also some popular American sandwiches, but done our way.” The partners intend to keep the Highland Park restaurant/bistro. The energetic Villavicencio is also working on a blog about Peruvian cuisine and cooking, and where to find sources for authentic Peruvian ingredients.

Tete Bistronomie, 304 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, 732-246-1502. www.cateringbytete.com

Follow Pat Tanner’s blog at www.dinewithpat.com.

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