The Route 1 corridor abounds with restaurants that feature international cuisines. There is no dearth of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Mediterranean, Mexican, and Italian restaurants, for example. (Some might even argue that we have too many of that last.) And while other cuisines have a smattering of representation — say, Guatemalan in Trenton and Middle Eastern throughout — there exists a vacuum when it comes to many others.
Here I focus on five sit-down, full-service restaurants with fare that you won’t encounter much elsewhere in the area. They specialize in the cuisines of Poland, Puerto Rico, and Ethiopia (which the area had been without after Makeda in New Brunswick closed its doors), as well as hard-to-come-by regional fare (Taiwanese) and specialties (ramen). One even offers a new, on-trend kind of fusion: a cultural mash-up of Indian and Chinese.
#b#India Meets China: Spice Rack#/b#
Indian restaurants of every stripe dominate the virtual melting pot of strip-mall eateries that stretches along Route 27 from Franklin Park to North Brunswick. Spice Rack sets itself apart in several ways. First off, its sprawling, 12-page menu teems not only with classic and beloved Indian dishes, but also Chinese and Thai restaurant fare such as hot and sour soup and pad Thai.
But a closer inspection reveals that something else is also going on here. Dishes with names like Vegetable Manchurian, Fusion Bhel, Tibet Lamb, Hakka Noodles, Chili Garlic Fried Basmati Rice, and American Chop Suey are just a few representatives of the phenomenon known as Indian Chinese cuisine. Believed to have been developed by the Chinese immigrant population of Kolkata, it is defined as Chinese dishes modified to please the Indian palate. These dishes include spices not widely used in China, such as cumin and turmeric, as well as generous lashings of fresh ginger and sometimes yogurt. Chinese cooking techniques such as stir-frying are often applied.
Dishes labeled “Manchurian” are clear indicators of the genre, since nothing like them is found inside China. They feature proteins cooked with standard Indian vegetables and flavor staples — garlic, ginger, hot chilies — but they are napped in a sweet-and-sour brown “gravy” that replaces garam masala with soy sauce. Spice Rack’s Vegetable Manchurian, for example, consists of fluffy balls of tender, finely minced cabbage and other boiled and mashed vegetables bound with a touch of cornstarch, lightly fried, and then simmered in the eponymous brown sauce.
Fusion Bhel, one of the restaurant’s most popular starters, is a timbale of greaseless crisp-fried noodles seasoned with sweet and hot spices, both dry and liquid. It’s a riff on Indian chaat, says Spice Rack’s owner, Nitin Chanana. “But the addition of Chinese spices, not just Indian spices, makes it fusion. It’s street food from two countries!”
Beyond its unique menu offerings, Spice Rack distinguishes itself from its restaurant kin in providing a comfortable and attractive dining room, complete with cloth napkins and background music, plus formal but friendly and knowledgeable service. (Adults can expect to be addressed as “sir” and “madam.”)
Nitin Chanana, who is 36, credits his 14 years of experience in the hospitality industry for that. He was born into a restaurant family in Shima, a small town in the Indian Himalayas, and after graduating from college elected to go to New Zealand, where in two years he earned a master’s degree in hospitality. That led to an industry job in Cleveland, in 2003, and a year later his career brought him to New Jersey, where he worked for Hyatt, Ruby Tuesday, and, for four years, the Olive Garden in East Brunswick.
“The front-of-the-house experience is paramount,” he says. “This is a family business — I’m here every evening.” Chanana, who is unmarried, works at the restaurant seven days a week. His mother and married sister help out on weekends.
In 2013 he opened Spice Rack, which he calls “his dream,” with the help of family and friends. “The first six months were slow. We went unnoticed,” he acknowledges. “But then our reputation grew through word of mouth. People began recommending us to their friends.” His main customer base consists of families from Kendall Park, South Brunswick, and Princeton. “Families with kids, lots of kids,” he says. “I see many places where you have maybe 20 menu options. Those places, you won’t see the same people every week or even several times a month. We have 75 offerings, something different each time you come. Plus, Indian-Chinese is so popular these days — even in India.” Takeout represents about 30 to 35 percent of his business.
Normally such a large and diffuse menu as Spice Rack’s would be a recipe for mediocrity, if not disaster. (It also encompasses many dishes in the modern American playbook, such as goat cheese and beet salad, grilled Portobello mushroom, and brownies with hot fudge sauce and ice cream.) Chanana makes it work, in part, because of a kitchen staff of eight that includes two Chinese cooks and two Indian cooks, one of whom is dedicated solely to making curries. That matters, he says, plus the quality and freshness of the ingredients, which include halal meats. “I buy three times a week from local suppliers. Nothing is more than 48 hours old,” he says.
Chanana is himself a vegetarian. His personal favorite dishes are Lucknawi Paneer, described on the menu as “paneer with red onions and green peppercorns immersed in aromatic sauce with melon seeds, tomato, and spices,” and Triple Szechuan Fried Rice: “vegetables with fried rice, noodles cooked with cabbage, sprouts, scallions, onions, peppers, and Szechuan sauce.”
Last year Chanana almost opened a second Spice Rack in Monmouth Junction, but the location fell through. He is still hoping to add a second — and possibly third — elsewhere in the area. “Maybe South Brunswick, maybe East Brunswick. But definitely somewhere within 20, 30 minutes.”
Spice Rack, 3191 Route 27, Franklin Park. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. 732-305-7661. www.spiceracknj.com.
#b#Buen Provecho Cafe#/b#
Ask Orlando Burgos, who with his wife, Gloria, owns this Puerto Rican restaurant in Hamilton, to describe the food of his home island, and he’ll point out first and foremost that, unlike some other Hispanic cuisines, it is not spicy hot. “But it has a lot of other flavorful seasonings and combines a variety of influences,” he explains, including those of the Taino, the island’s indigenous Indian tribe (a subgroup of the Arawaks); of the Spanish conquerors; and of the enslaved Africans who were brought there.
“Expect to have something different than what you’re used to,” he warns, adding, “and we eat a lot of rice and plantains, both green, like for tostones, and ripe (the sweet maduros).” The seasoning he refers to is sofrito, the underpinning to all Latin American cooking, consisting of sauteed aromatics. “But it’s our own Puerto Rican sofrito — sweet peppers, onions, cilantro, and broad-leaf cilantro, which is a different variety than we commonly see here. If you don’t use it, it’s not Puerto Rican!” he asserts. These are combined with oil in a mortar and used in soups, bean dishes, and meats and provide the signature taste. “Puerto Rican food is both simple and complicated at the same time,” Burgos says. “It’s closer to the foods of Cuba and the Dominican Republic than to other Hispanic cuisines.”
His favorite dish is mofongo, an Afro-Puerto Rican mash of cooked green plantains pounded in a mortar with garlic, pork cracklings, and corn or olive oil. At Buen Provecho — the name is analogous to Bon Appetit — mofongo is available as a side dish and as a main, for which it is stuffed with a choice of chicken, shrimp, or skirt steak. A customer favorite is trifongo, which is made with yucca, green plantains, and maduros. “It’s soft, sweet, and crunchy all together,” Burgos explains.
He estimates that only about 20 percent of his clientele is Puerto Rican. Regulars come from all over the Route 1 corridor and as far away as the Philadelphia suburbs and even New York City. “There was one family who came from California to watch their daughter compete in a Princeton University sporting event, and they wanted the food of their homeland,” he says. Another family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, stops in every time they’re in the area to visit friends.
The Burgoses, who live in Burlington, opened Buen Provecho in June, 2014, in a space that they renovated and designed to have look and feel of a warm, well-cared-for private home in the islands. For many years the site had been occupied by a series of restaurants, the last of which was Peasants. It seats about 70 on two floors, plus another 45 outside.
Opening the restaurant took several tries. “Our oldest daughter is a chef, and it was her dream to have her own restaurant,” Orlando Burgos says. “But just as I began looking for a restaurant for her, she became pregnant! So I told my wife, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ Two years later, we were looking again and this location came on the market. I brought my daughter over and she liked it, but she was hesitant. And then it turned out she was pregnant again! I said, ‘Forget about it.’ But then the owners dropped the price, so my wife and I bought it as an investment, intending to rent it out.” In the end, realizing that there wasn’t a single Puerto Rican restaurant in the area, the couple decided that they should open what is now Buen Provecho.
The menu includes starters, main dishes, sides, salads, soups, sandwiches, desserts, and drinks that Burgos labels “traditional but with our own tweaks” and that bring back his memories of home. For him, these include grilled grouper with mashed ripe malanga, cream of malanga soup with malanga chips, and churrasco — grilled skirt steak topped with a Caribbean version of chimichurri. (As is customary in Latin American restaurants, all meat is completely cooked through. No such thing as medium-rare here.)
Among his customers’ favorites is a hearty sandwich called La Tripleta Puertorriquena, a feast on a soft torpedo roll that includes chicken, skirt steak, and roast pork along with cheese. Another top seller is the mixed appetizer platter that features empanadas, salt codfish fritters, cubes of fried queso blanco, and bundles of plantain “chips” wrapped around shredded roast pork.
In June Burgos brought over his niece from Puerto Rico to take charge of the restaurant’s desserts, which include Puerto Rican coconut rum cake, guava-filled rum cake, and flan. The main cook is Gloria Burgos’s second cousin. “She’s only 21 years old!” marvels Orlando Burgos, who is 44 and who dropped out of high school in Puerto Rico to go to culinary school. The restaurant where he completed his internship then hired him on. He was all of 16 and worked for that restaurant for the next four years, at which time he came to the U.S. from his hometown of Ciales.
The remainder of his family still resides in Puerto Rico. “I am the youngest of five. All my siblings are back home. I came to the U.S. in August, 1989. I left Puerto Rico because I didn’t want to go to college. I was rebellious. My parents had cousins here. Of course, my parents were right and I was wrong! But I had made the decision.”
The city of Ciales, Burgos says, is “all about coffee beans.” It is, in fact, home to the Museum of Coffee. Burgos can’t recall an age at which he wasn’t already drinking coffee. As proud as he is of his restaurant and its fare, Burgos admits that his real passion is the coffee he serves, which is made with beans from the museum. “Puerto Rican coffee beans are the best quality, but we don’t produce a lot so the outside world doesn’t know about them,” he says. As far as he can determine, his is the only restaurant in the U.S. to which the museum ships its beans. They come already roasted, but Burgos’s goal is to someday roast them himself.
Orlando Burgos did not quit his day job to open Buen Provecho, which has hours limited to four days a week. He also works full time, seven days a week for a cable company. He hopes to gradually extend the restaurant’s hours “a little at a time.”
Buen Provecho, 1701 Hamilton Avenue, Hamilton. Thursday, 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. 609-981-7700. www.buenprovechocafe.com.
#b#Dashen Ethiopian Cuisine#/b#
When Makeda, New Brunswick’s long-time and only Ethiopian restaurant, closed in January, 2015, it looked like the end of an era. But then, eight months later, a new Ethiopian restaurant sprang up on Albany Street in a small but sunny space in the same commercial row as Old Man Rafferty’s. It was named Desta, which means “happiness” in Amharic. Fast forward two months and a new name appeared on its windows: Dashen. Turns out that a legal issue was behind the change, but all else remains the same.
Tsigereda (“T.G.”) Lemlemayehu, Dashen’s chef, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Alemayehu Hailu, says that the new name refers to Ras Dashen which, at just under 15,000 feet, is the highest mountain in Ethiopia. “It is beautiful and, like the highest mountain, we strive to have the highest quality food,” she says. Yelpers and other online reviewers are in agreement that she is succeeding mightily in that quest. Many of Makeda’s fans who were devastated by its closing now tout Dashen’s fare as superior. Lemlemayehu is particularly proud that Dashen was among www.nj.com’s list of “10 Hottest Restaurants” in February.
Dashen’s menu consists of the familiar roster of traditional Ethiopian dishes — mostly long-simmered, often spicy meat and vegetable stews served over and with injera, the nation’s signature large, spongy flatbread made from fermented teff flour. Standards include Doro Wot (chicken simmered in berbere, the unique Ethiopian blend of chili peppers and herbs and spices, along with onions, garlic, ginger, and seasoned clarified butter and served with a hardboiled egg), Tibs Wot (cubes of beef stir-fried with the same flavorings), and Gomen (a vegetarian version, without berbere, made with fresh collard greens, spinach, and/or kale).
Lemlemayehu describes the distinctive qualities of Ethiopian cuisine as being “fresh, tasty, made without preservatives or artificial flavors, and featuring lots of chicken, lamb, and vegetables.” But that undersells the best qualities of her output. Not only is everything made from scratch using quality ingredients, it manages to avoid the pitfalls that have kept many Americans from embracing Ethiopian food. First, fiery spice levels are kept under control. They’re present enough to add depth, interest, and authenticity, but they’re not overpowering.
More importantly, the flavor and texture of the main ingredients remain intact and distinctive. Stews are not reduced to undifferentiated mushes. Vegetables and legumes, in particular, shine. It’s easy to see why her best sellers are the Dashen Sampler (a combination of five meat dishes with five side dishes from the vegetarian side of the menu, served with injera) and the Veggie Sampler, for which diners get to choose nine dishes, served with injera and accompanied by the house salad of mixed lettuces, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Lemlemayehu was born and raised in a suburb of Addis Ababa. Now 43 years old, she came to the U.S. at the end of 1992, when she and her husband married. They live in Woodbridge and have two children, ages 22 and 12. Lemlemayehu’s sister works alongside her at Dashen. Family recipes provide the basis of all the cooking here, and her berbere blend is a combination of her mother’s recipe and her husband’s. She imports spices directly from Ethiopia.
Dashen’s loyal customer base draws largely from Rutgers professors, workers from Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters across the road, and Rutgers students. “But many also come from as far away as an hour, including from Princeton,” Lemlemayehu says. She herself designed the restaurant’s casual but distinctive interior featuring Ethiopian motifs and art. The restaurant seats 44 inside and eight on the patio in good weather. Plans are underway to expand into a currently unoccupied space next door, in part to relieve the long wait for tables during peak hours, which include Friday nights (reservations are accepted).
Dashen has two other main attractions, one very traditional and one untraditional. That latter is its seemingly unusual dessert offering of made-to-order crepes. This came about because the space was previously occupied by a creperie and, Lemlemayehu says, they fit better with her mission than typical American desserts such as cakes and pies. “Those wouldn’t be as fresh as crepes, and we make everything fresh,” she says. “And we sell a lot! The lady who sold us the business taught us. She’s a good woman and a good teacher.”
The ultra-traditional attraction at Dashen is that groups of five or more can opt to experience a full-fledged Ethiopian coffee ceremony. For that, Lemlemayehu begins by roasting green coffee beans on the spot, then presenting the roasted beans to the guests so they can inhale the aroma. The beans are then ground and coffee brewed in a traditional clay coffee pot. The finished product is poured into small ceramic cups called “si’ni.” Fresh-popped popcorn is served along with the coffee. “People really love the coffee ceremony,” Lemlemayehu says in a bit of understatement.
Dashen Ethiopian Cuisine, 88 Albany Street, New Brunswick. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 am to 10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 732-249-0494. www.dashenethiopiannj.com.
It says a lot about this Polish restaurant, which is located not far from the Trenton Farmers Market, that nothing of note has changed since it opened in 2009. Well maybe one thing: the 35-seat restaurant is closed for private parties a bit more often, typically for significant traditional life events — a First Communion party being one recent example.
Situated in an unassuming storefront on North Olden Avenue, it features bargain-priced, lovingly executed Polish comfort food made from scratch by owner/chef Joanna Myslowski, whose homey, warm-hued restaurant where she is chief cook, hostess, and server has thrived in spite of some pretty daunting odds.
For one thing, Myslowski, who will turn 50 this year, was simply a home cook with no restaurant experience when she opened Rozmaryn. For another, the immediate neighborhood’s Polish population was rapidly dwindling at the time.
But Rozmaryn, which is named for the herb rosemary, has over the years developed a devoted following for its traditional, made-from-scratch home cooking, including exceptional pierogies (three kinds: potato and cheese, sauerkraut and mushroom, and ground pork), stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes, pork schnitzel, and hunter’s stew (sauerkraut, pork, beef, and Polish kielbasa with mushrooms and prunes). All are made using recipes from Myslowski’s mother in Poland. Desserts, which include cheese blintzes and Polish apple cake, are her grandmother’s recipes. In many cases, Myslowski has tweaked the recipes to make them lighter and healthier.
“I want to keep serving Polish comfort food — nothing fancy,” she says. “This is the food I grew up with. Stuffed cabbage, for example, was always on the table.” In addition to a set menu — the same at lunch and dinner — Myslowski offers daily specials such as chicken livers with onion and apple or beef medallions with mushroom gravy.
Customer favorites include the Polish Plate (three pierogies, three potato pancakes, kielbasa), chicken noodle soup, beet salad, the Gypsy Special (a big potato pancake enveloping a serving of beef stew), and the two aforementioned desserts. A hard-to-find, goulash-like soup of beef tripe has its fans, among them Myslowski’s elder son, now a college sophomore. She and her husband, Steven, have two boys. The younger, a sophomore in high school, has yet to be converted into a tripe fan.
“My younger one was eight years old when I decided to open Rozmaryn,” Myslowski says. “The hard part — the big price you pay — is not being with your family on weekends. Other than that, everything is worthwhile.”
She confesses that she did no research and had no business plan when she opened Rozmaryn. “I didn’t know if the restaurant would take off,” Myslowski admits. “But I had spent 16 years staying at home, and I had had enough! I wanted to do something outside. Everyone told me I was a good cook, so I just decided to give it a try.” The Myslowskis left Warsaw, Poland in 1991, relocating to Lexington, Kentucky, for Steven’s job with IBM. Two years later, he was transferred to the company’s Dayton, New Jersey, office. (That has since closed. Steven Myslowski still works in information technology but for a different company.)
It’s easy to miss the restaurant’s narrow exterior on the ground floor of a nondescript red-brick building — another hurdle for the new restaurant. The entrance to its two small rooms is up some steps and behind an interior door that’s off to one side of a narrow hallway. But once inside, the restaurant’s cheerful yellow-gold walls with brick accents are inviting and homey. As is Myslowski, who is renowned for her warm, welcoming smile and upbeat demeanor. She often serves as hostess and server as well as cook.
“In the beginning there were no customers!” Myslowski says with a laugh. “But then Americans of Polish heritage began to come, and now most of my customers are Americans of many backgrounds.”
The restaurant was given its first boost when Susan Yeske of the Times of Trenton reviewed it early on, but Myslowski’s big break came in 2012 with a very favorable review in the New York Times. She claims that hers was the first Polish restaurant in New Jersey to be reviewed by that publication, and that does indeed seem to be the case. “That,” she admits, “was priceless!”
Rozmaryn Restaurant, 925 North Olden Avenue, Trenton. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday, noon to 7 p.m. 609-656-1600. www.rozmarynrestaurant.com.
#b#Rai Rai Ramen#/b#
Considering how popular and populous sushi restaurants are across the region, it is surprising that there is only one restaurant devoted to another Japanese food that has achieved cult status: ramen. It is especially fortuitous, then, that the area’s lone practitioner happens to also be first rate. The original Rai Rai Ramen was founded by in 1996 in Kailua, Hawaii, by three brothers. Even Vincent Lin, spokesperson for the North Brunswick location, marvels that the Hawaiian original “became one of the most popular restaurants in town. Even a Japanese magazine paid us a visit and wrote a column about us!”
These days, there’s a Rai Rai Ramen in Los Angeles, as well. Lin himself started out as an apprentice at a different popular ramen house in Hawaii. “It was operated by a Japanese company, and three years later I was selected to go to Japan for training,” he says. That training lasted two full years.
The North Brunswick location opened in 2008 but closed down after a devastating fire in December, 2014. (The cause is still unknown.) After that the team established an outpost in Philadelphia with another partner, but that soon closed down. The team rededicated itself to the same spot in the strip mall on Route 27 that also contains Dosa Grill and reopened this past September. Changes include a pared-down menu — the previous had featured more Hawaiian and Taiwanese specialties — and a complete overhaul of what by overwhelming consensus had been a dreary, badly worn interior.
One of the owners, identified only as Jackie, designed what is now a stunningly sleek, modern 1,200-square-foot space with a predominately black and white color scheme, lightened with touches of neutral woods and a floor of oversize slate gray tiles. Customers, some of whom will have waited on line outside for 40 minutes during peak hours, now sit on comfortably padded black leather chairs, while a contemporary take on white paper lanterns provides overhead lighting. The most striking element is, perhaps, the walls that are lined with a white plasticized covering that features a 3-D design of random horizontal waves.
Lin says his restaurant’s main client base skews on the youngish side, and that he sees a wide mix of ethnicities, among them Indian and Latino. Some customers come from an hour away to dine at Rai Rai Ramen. (“Rai” means lightning and/or thunder in Japanese.) The ramen portion of the menu is divided into Japanese (traditional shoyu, shio, and miso styles), Katsu (with fried breaded chicken, shrimp, or oysters), Charsiu (with roasted pork), and Specialty. That last section includes ramen featuring oxtail, mabo tofu, or kim chee. The restaurant sources its all-important fresh ramen noodles from the estimable Sun Noodle factory in Teterboro, which has a cult following of its own. Best sellers here are miso ramen and mochiko chicken, the latter a Hawaiian-Japanese fusion for which chicken is fried in rice-flour batter.
Among the non-ramen offerings are various rice, Chinese noodle, and moo shu dishes, and a “chef’s specialty” of Mongolian beef.
But perhaps the most unexpected section of the menu is that devoted to six Taiwanese dishes. Of the many regional Chinese cuisines represented in these parts, Taiwanese is perhaps the most difficult to come by. At Rai Rai Ramen, the island’s fresh, light, non-spicy cuisine is represented by beef noodle soup, braised pork rice, noodles with meat sauce (made with ground pork and Chinese mushrooms), fried chicken with rice (the Taiwanese are said to be crazy for fried chicken), and omelets featuring either oysters or shrimp.
Oyster omelets are among the most popular dishes sold at Taiwan’s famous night markets. They contain not only eggs, but also a starch-based batter like that of a scallion pancake, and are served with “red sauce” — a variable mixture of ketchup, rice vinegar, soy, and sugar. The Taiwanese cooking is handled by the head chef, who, Vincent Lin says, “learned it from an old master in California and who is also an owner.” The Rai Rai Ramen team is about to bet on Pennsylvania once again, with plans to open a location in Bryn Mawr as early as June.
Rai Rai Ramen, 1980 Route 27, Somerset. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. 732-821-5777.