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This article was prepared for the October 23, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Trenton’s Capital Fare: Beyond the ‘Burg
To me, Trenton is neighborhoods. My own, the Island,
feels like something out of Mark Twain, a stretch of lazy riverbank
where an evening stroll turns into a series of street corner conversations.
There are far grander neighborhoods, like Cadwalader Heights with
its Tudor mansions, Hiltonia with its Dutch Colonials set on perfectly
landscaped lawns along gracefully curving streets, or Mill Hill with
its gas lights and historic townhouses. There are also sadder neighborhoods,
some without names, but with a sprinkling of boarded-up buildings.
While I have found Trenton to be a fine place to live, I have never
hung out there. It seems to lack a center, a place to stroll, people
watch, stop to shop and eat, and then stroll again. In the evening,
I hang in my neighborhood, camping out in front of my house to read
and chat with my friends. On summer weekends, it’s off to the shore.
This time of year, I spend all of my down time in Manhattan.
Spoiled by the enveloping energy of the big city, I confess to not
spending much time in the Trenton beyond my neighborhood. Still I
did want to check out Trenton’s First Friday, a monthly event that
has restaurants, galleries, and stores staying open late. On one of
the first First Fridays, I was out of town, but a group of my neighbors
went, took rooms at the new Lafayette Yard Marriott, and reported
having a great time. Since then, I have been making a mental note
to attend, and on Friday, October 4, I finally made it.
Wending my way to Warren Street, I parked in the First Union bank
parking lot, and hit the streets. I heard the crowd at Checkers, a
casual bar and restaurant, before I saw it. A number of tables had
been set up in the parking lot. Encircled by white lights, they were
full of people laughing and talking at a level that carried for blocks.
Walking toward the new hotel, I passed Cafe Ole, a bright, modern
coffee house, and Maxine’s, a Trenton restaurant pioneer. People and
music spilled out of both places, and it was there, on Warren Street
at 8 o’clock on a Friday night, nearly a decade after I had moved
to Trenton, that I first thought of my home as a city, a real city,
a place to gather, stroll, eat, weave in and out of stores, and listen
Ah! It was intoxicating. Turning a corner, I ran into
Jim and Carrie Gordon, my neighbors, leaving Utopia, one of the hippest
new restaurants in the city. What’s good? I asked them. "`Everything,’"
they said in unison. "We’ve been through the whole menu."
"`Jim really likes the trout,’" said Carrie.
"`Carrie really likes the duck,’" said Jim.
By this time it was getting toward 8:30 p.m. and I vaguely recalled
hearing that some of the First Friday activities end at 9 p.m. Noticing
vendors’ booths on the sidewalks, I quickly checked them out, seeing
everything from T-shirts (Trenton Makes, naturally, was a big theme)
to fine painted glass to popcorn and toys. A large family of Middle
Eastern people, were, inexplicably, selling fried chicken and rice.
I had no time to ask why they had chosen a southern specialty, but
did hear them cheerfully offering marked-down platters as the evening
Heading to the hotel, I spied Stan Kephart, the artist who creates
U.S. 1’s covers, down a hallway. I had just seen two of his paintings
in the entrance to the hotel’s conference center. One, in brilliant
color, showing the state capitol’s gold dome rising above the buildings
on West State Street, had held me mesmerized, and I was eager to tell
him so. But the hotel was crowded — people, glorious people! —
and by the time I rounded the corner, he was gone.
At that point I was torn, it was too late to grab the trolley that
would have taken me up to the Urban Word and the art studios near
the Sovereign Bank Arena, a vital part of the First Friday scene every
month, or over to Ellarslie, the city’s museum in Cadwalader Park,
where a preview of a new show, Crowns, was underway.
The decision came down to joining the big, loud, happy crowd in the
bar or going outside to catch the jazz trio before they packed up.
I chose the jazz trio, and found 20 or more tables set up out next
to the hotel. Some couples were dancing, while others gathered around
a raw bar, or sat talking. It was a well-dressed crowd, sophisticated,
the sort of people I definitely associated more with SoHo than with
After listening for 15 minutes or so, I headed back inside to another
decision: Sit at the bar, maybe with a platter of wings, or grab a
drink and a chair in the lobby with the giant television, on which
the poor Yankees were playing the next-to-the-last game of their season.
The Lafayette Yard Marriott has several lobbies, each more appealing
than the next. In an era where many hotels are replacing generous
lobby seating with a token perch or two in front of the check-in desk,
this hotel has gone all out.
I staked out an over-sized leather chair nearest to the bar and settled
back with drink. I seem to recall that the Yankees were doing pretty
well, still looking like contenders, but my attention soon turned
from the screen to the comings and goings around me. At one table,
two politicos greeted a steady stream of friends. Children went back
and forth to the lobby gift shop. A group of six friends on couches
across the room debated choices on the bar menu. Bursts of laughter
came from the bar.
Well past 9 o’clock, I ventured out, pausing to look into the hotel
restaurant, which was still pretty busy. Out on the street, I looked
into Maxine’s window. A quartet was playing and two dozen dancers
were on the floor. A number of diners lingered at tables, mostly in
groups of six or more, and the bar was standing room only.
Couples stepped out of Utopia, arm-in-arm, and there were a number
of people having dinner in Taste of India, which had been quiet earlier
in the evening.
The street vendors and musicians were packing up, but curbs and parking
lots were full, music poured from doorways, and there was enough laughter
and conversation to create the unmistakable hum that says just one
More than the ball park, more than the arena, even more than the hotel,
First Friday shows, one day a month, what Trenton can be all the time:
a regional center for arts, entertainment — and just hanging out.
And, we should add, more than Chambersburg, the city’s renowned restaurant
district in the heart of a tightly knit Italian-American neighborhood.
That section of the city remains vibrant — leading to debates
on the best Chambersburg restaurant for fish, veal, or pasta —
and this issue could have easily been filled with listings of ‘Burg
restaurants. But other sections of Trenton are gaining popularity
as dining destinations. Here is a sampling of Trenton dining beyond
Each of us dreams our own Utopia. But if your dream
involves hearty portions of fresh, adventuresome foods laced with
seasonings and spices gathered from around the world, all served in
an elegant but friendly setting, your Utopia may already exist in
Utopia International Bistro, at 11 West Front Street, near the corner
of Warren Street, has been open for just over a year. Its cozy downstairs
dining room boasts glowing yellow ocher walls hung with colorful paintings
and prints. Near the entrance, there’s an eight-stool bar; the dining
room offers an intimate eight tables with seating for about two dozen
diners. Tables are set with white linen and fresh flowers; a votive
candle flickers on each table in the evenings. All this comes together
to produce an attractive dining destination in which flavorful foods
are complemented by an elegant sense of occasion.
Utopia’s executive chef L. Dametrious Sadler has created a menu that
draws on the cuisines of North Africa and Asia, but with a distinctly
and comfortably American, even a down-home touch. Servings are larger
than we have come to expect these days, and everything we sampled
from the kitchen — from entree to salad dressings to seasoned
oil for our crusty bread — was imaginatively seasoned with an
adventuresome blend of ingredients and spices.
While our own favorite dish was the Moroccan soup, the bistro has
become an area favorite for offerings that include its "Famous
B-52s," deep fried chicken wings served on a bed of crisp onions
and cucumbers and lunchtime sandwiches.
From the appetizer menu, my dining partner and I shared an order of
steamed Seared Yellow-Fin Tuna Wontons ($8), seasoned with garlic,
green onion, and teriyaki, and served with an Orange Chile Glaze.
We were entranced by the delicate flavors, fresh textures, and attractive
presentation of this starter, although my partner found the accompanying
glaze slightly incongruous.
There was no disagreement, however, when we voted our soup selection
— the Moroccan Chickpea, Vegetable, and Chicken Soup ($6) —
best in show. Described on the menu as "an East African delight,"
we would rename it Trenton’s Delight. Truly this large bowl of chickpeas,
fresh tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini stewed in a rich broth redolent
with tarragon and parsley and studded with chicken chunks, makes a
meal in itself. Faced with such irresistible flavors, we probably
ate a bit more than we should; it was just too good to see a single
drop go back to the kitchen.
Utopia’s menu of 12 dinner entrees (listed with a recommended complementing
wine choice) — plus the evening’s two dinner specials — makes
the selection process particularly challenging.
This palate-dazzling menu features five fish and shellfish entrees,
including a classic Milan Seafood Linguine ($22) and a Shellfish Ravioli
($22). Additional meat entrees offer a variety of fowl; we were tempted
by the Chicken Roulade ($19), a chicken breast stuffed with spinach,
roasted peppers, calamata olives, and feta cheese. The Seared Duck
Breast also came recommended by another diner.
Yet my eventual choice of the Buttermilk Pan Fried Trout ($20) surpassed
my expectations. The filleted freshwater rainbow trout is served with
a golden crust of cornmeal and buttermilk atop a bed of yellow rice
and red beans in a spicy vegetable and mango sauce. The ample portion
of fresh fish contrasted nicely with the variegated color and flavors
of the rice dish.
From the evening’s specials, my partner chose an entree of scallops
topped with broiled salmon mousse and served on a bed of seasoned
mashed potatoes ($24). The dish was ample, interesting, and flavorful,
although the texture of the scallops was not completely to my partner’s
Our friendly neighboring diners (tables are placed close here, so
there’s opportunity for camaraderie among diners), were visiting Utopia
for at least the third time and told us that their response to its
big menu of intriguing dishes is to select a different entree on each
After our ample meal, we chose from among the four desserts —
chocolate mousse cake, tira misu, creme brulee, and bread pudding
— the Bread Pudding ($5), something of a house specialty. And
here the chef charmed us yet again. The dessert, served in two large
wedges (we actually inquired whether we had been brought two portions),
is a moist and wonderful concoction studded (we think) with liqueur-soaked
raisins and blueberries.
Throughout our Saturday evening meal, our server was friendly and
attentive enough without being intrusive. Utopia offers a full bar
and wine list. The bistro is an equally attractive destination for
lunch, when salads and interesting sandwiches are priced from $6 to
$10 and five of the dinner menu entrees are offered in lunchtime portions
for $10 and $11.
Perhaps an ideal Utopian society still exists somewhere beyond our
reach. But for the hungry diner who admires creative cooking, it’s
close at hand.
— Nicole Plett
Utopia International Bistro, 11 West Front Street
(near the corner of Warren Street), Trenton. 609-394-1991; fax, 609-394-8388.
Eclectic cuisine. Open for lunch on weekdays; dinner Tuesday to Saturday.
Utopia offers a full bar and wine list. Reservations recommended,
especially for large parties.
When Jose Diaz was a boy, living on North Clinton Avenue
in Trenton, Joe’s Tomato Pie was where he went for a treat. "As
soon as I got $2.12 in my pocket, I would head for Joe’s," he
says with a laugh. Joe’s, at 550 South Clinton Avenue, was founded
by the Silvestro family in 1910. It was Trenton’s first pizzeria,
Diaz says, and its drive through window was the first in New Jersey.
Diaz now owns Joe’s, which in August had its grand opening as Mambo’s,
a Puerto Rican restaurant and salsa-mambo dance studio.
While it seems that every other person who enjoys eating out dreams
of one day opening a restaurant, Diaz never did. "I worked construction,
I had no intention of owning a restaurant," he says. Until Joe’s
called to him, Diaz worked for Isles, the nonprofit neighborhood redevelopment
group, as a construction manager for scatter site rehabilitation.
It was his avocation that brought him to Joe’s. Diaz also is a salsa-mambo
instructor. Trained in New York by Eddie Torres, a/k/a the Mambo King,
he had been giving dance lessons around Trenton, at River City Cafe,
the Urban Word, and the Trenton YWCA. "But I became more and more
in demand," he says, "the rent kept getting higher, and I
began looking for a space of my own."
He recounts how Ann LaBatte, a real estate broker with Segal Realty,
told him Joe’s would be perfect for him. He went to see the restaurant,
and, he says, "in a flash I saw my mother and my sister in there."
His sister, Stella Diaz, had learned how to cook in Puerto Rico, and
went on to open a deli in New Haven. His mother, Toni Diaz, who immigrated
to the United States from Peurto Rico in the 1940s, was retired after
20 years with Planned Parenthood. She is, Diaz says, a wizard with
At his first meeting with the Silvestro family, Roseanne Silvestro
greeted him by recalling his boyhood favorite. "Pepperoni and
onion!" she exclaimed. Negotiations proceeded smoothly. "They
were open arms about it," he says. "This is the only closing
where everybody cried."
Shortly after the restaurant changed hands, he recounts, "cousin
Joe, an in-law who married Roseanne’s sister, lent us the original
dough recipe. He said he will help out in any way he can."
And so the torch is passed; Italian to Hispanic on the edges of Chambersburg.
Around the restaurant are many signs of the all-American change of
guard, one group of immigrants replacing another. Lira’s Deli and
Grocery is on the next block, a dry cleaner across the way advertises
specials in Spanish, and Bori Cuba II, a music store, is close by.
At Kam’s Buffet, a Chinese restaurant in the Roebling Center, about
two blocks away, many diners converse in Spanish.
Inside Mambo’s there is fusion. The menu consists mainly of Peurto
Rican specialties, but pizza is still available, as is calzone and
The restaurant, which has its own small parking lot, is decorated,
inside and out, in light earth tones. An enormous six-sided window
fills the two-level dining space with light. The lower dining room,
with white brick walls, provides a peek at action in the kitchen.
A long, wide mirror, outlined in white lights, runs along one wall
of the upper dining room. Newly-refinished hardwood floors gleam throughout.
There are 21 tables, all covered in clay-tone cloths.
Trenton now has Costa Rican, Mexican, and Guatemalan restaurants as
well as Diaz’ new Puerto Rican restaurant. He says the cuisines are
distinct. Each group cooks its rice and beans differently, for one
thing. More importantly, says Diaz, "in Puerto Rico, we have sofrito."
Sofrito, he explains, is "basically seasonings — peppers,
onions, garlic." The sofrito is added to meat and fish dishes.
In Puerto Rican cooking, Diaz says, the big question is always, "What
is your sofrito made from?"
Mambo’s sofrito appears in dishes named for dance steps. Rumble in
the Jungle is Criolla-style chicken Caesar salad ($5.75), and the
Half Swing is 1/2 chicken and 1/2 steak wrap with rice and beans ($6.25).
Tibi-Ri Tabu-Ri is king fish steak a la vinaigrette with cassava ($13.95)
and El Cayuco Strut is sirloin strip steak with borinquen island sauce
On a recent Friday, with crowds streaming into the Sovereign Bank
Arena, two blocks west of Mambo’s, I stopped in to sample the food.
Stella Diaz had told me, in a phone interview, that the conch and
red snapper filet are especially popular, and that the octopus "sells
out all the time," while her brother sang the praises of his mother’s
The spouse was working late, and is — by far — the most adventurous
diner in the family, so I ordered octopus ($5.75 as a side; $15.75
as an entre) to go. He pronounced it outstanding, enjoying the seasoning,
in which he detected red and green pepper. I ordered the Cuban Side
Charge ($5.50), a hot sub described on the menu as "roast pork
with grilled onions, cheese, and homemade garlic sauce." It was,
by far, the best — the very, very best — sandwich I have ever
had anywhere. The pork was tender and full of flavor, the sauce was
assertive but not overpowering, and the roll was just right, warm
and slightly charred around the edges.
On Friday, the flan ($2.50) was vanilla. Diaz says his mother sometimes
makes coconut flan, and is starting to experiment with fruit flan.
The vanilla was excellent — what I had of it. Unable to tackle
it after enjoying the pork sub, I took it home, took a forkful or
two, and left it out on the counter. When next I passed through the
kitchen, it was gone. No one has yet confessed.
No matter, we will be back. Every order I saw going out on Friday
night — on large, oval, white plates — looked delicious. I’m
sure the spouse will love El Infierno, a pizza topped with hot sausage,
fresh garlic, and crushed red peppers, and also the Del Mar, a pizza
topped with several kinds of seafood, including octopus. Browsing
the take-out menu, he also expressed interest in the king-fish and
red snapper. I’m eager to try the fried plantains and Zig-Zag Slide,
homemade yellow rice with beans and grilled chicken.
Appetizers range in price from $1.50 for empanadilla to $5.75 for
shrimp cocktail, which is made of seared shrimp in garlic butter sauce
served with special house sauce. Sandwiches and lunch specials cost
between $4.75 and $6.25. Dinners, which start at $12.95 and top out
at $15.75, include homemade rice, beans, and a house salad or garlic
While the flavor of Mambo’s is Puerto Rican, Diaz says he walks a
While some traditional Puerto Rican dishes need to be jettisoned because
of pricing constraints — natives are used to $1 for dishes whose
ingredients cost three times that amount here — other deviations
from tradition at Mambo’s are occasioned by a desire to add excitement
to the menu. "We’re experimenting," says Diaz.
But not on Mondays. The kitchen is closed on Mondays, but Mambo’s
comes alive at night just the same. Monday is mambo night. Diaz gives
beginner lessons at 7 p.m., and advanced beginner lessons follow at
8:30 p.m. Called Mambomania Nights, the Monday sessions feature Salsaerobics.
The charge for adults is $10, while children pay $5.
Looking into the window of the just-closed Mambo’s on a recent Sunday
night, the spouse and I observed that the upper dining room, its chairs
and tables gone and speakers on its wooden floor, was all set for
salsa-mambo the next night. Going out of the parking lot, turning
right on a series of one-way streets, we soon came to the Italian
People’s Bakery on Butler Street. Somehow, despite nearly a decade
as Trenton residents, we had never been there. As we were heading
home to watch the Sopranos, it seemed only right to stop in.
With Mambo’s and its fine sofrito just a block or two away, and Italian
People’s Bakery’s unsurpassed pastry case in front of us, it was pleasant
to contemplate a fusion of ethnicities in a fast-evolving Trenton
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
Mambo’s, 550 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. 609-396-1517.
Fax: 609-396-9778. Puerto Rican cuisine. Open for lunch and dinner,
Tuesday to Sunday.
The Island All-Girls Book Club meets once a month in
my Trenton neighborhood. A delightful aspect of the book club is that
it does not confine itself to the discussion of character development
and plotting. No, there is plenty of chat on politics, discount shopping,
travel, home prices, and what the neighbors are up to.
So at our September meeting, at which Rhett Pernot, director of the
Trent House museum, served hot cider and spice cake, the group was
all too happy to help out when I asked for opinions on Trenton dining
In the lively discussion that followed, one restaurant stood out.
Several members of the group had been to a Polish place where the
food is fantastic and the prices are unbelievably low. Was it Lilian’s?
The phone book was consulted. Nothing under Lilian’s. Susan Nelson,
a nurse at St. Francis Medical Center, arrived a bit late, and supplied
the answer right away. Julian was the name.
No one was sure of the address, but there was general agreement that
Julian was near St. Hedwig’s Church, an imposing structure near Extension
Patio that is hard to miss.
I cased the restaurant the very next night. Stepping out of the car,
maybe three miles from my house, I was in a different world. A steady
stream of ladder-topped pick-up trucks (yes, all of them were white)
stopped at the little grocery store across the street, where cans
and boxes carried labels I could not read. No one was speaking English.
In doing a story on the 2000 census I had heard that there was a large
Polish-speaking population in Trenton and Lawrence, and here it was.
The next night, the spouse and I returned to have dinner at Julian,
actually called Julian Bistro. Free on-street parking is plentiful.
We started looking for a spot as soon as we passed St. Hedwig’s. The
entrance to Julian is up a short flight of stairs. At first we thought
the writing on the wall to the left was graffiti, but soon realized
it was the sort of inscriptions that decorate the tables at P.J.s
Pancake House in Princeton, basically names and dates. On the opposite
wall is a map of Europe with an inset map of Poland.
Inside we found a group of eight men, dressed in painter’s overalls,
obviously enjoying themselves, talking animatedly in Polish and passing
large platters of food. We were led to a table in the window. This
is a simple, casual place, but tables in the long, narrow dining room
are covered in white tablecloths. In our little window area, there
was light-colored patterned wallpaper, a pair of wall sconces, and
a view of cars moving briskly toward Route 1.
I decided right away to try the white borscht ($2.55). The spouse
shared, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. Full of kielbasa, small
pieces of egg, and onion, it could have been a meal. Thinking aloud
about a choice of entree, the spouse had nearly decided on baked beef
($6.25). "`No,’" our server said with authority, "`that’s
just pot roast.’" She wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about hunter’s
stew ($5.50) either.
"`Beef rollups?" the spouse ventured.
"`Yes,’" our server beamed, and he ordered the $6.75 entree.
I knew what I wanted — pierogis with onion. The server asked if
I wanted potato, meat, or sauerkraut pierogies. When I dithered, she
suggested that I order a combination, a few of each.
The spouse’s beef rollups, a trio of thin meat with pickles, onion,
and spices within was served with three substantial mounds of mashed
potatoes and two helpings of cabbage — one red, one green. It
was quite a plateful for $6.75. He pronounced everything delicious.
Sampling the potatoes, though, I found them a bit dry, and there
was a little too much gravy for my taste.
My pierogies, on the other hand, were pure perfection. The delicately
flavored potato pierogies were my favorite, and worlds above any I
had ever purchased frozen and reheated, or, for that matter, any I
had ever ordered anywhere else. The sauerkraut variety were nearly
as good, and the meat, while my least favorite, were still awfully
At Julian’s prices, we felt we could well afford to order a couple
of dinners to go. We chose the pork chops ($6.90) and the goulash
($6.50). The pork chops made their way into sandwiches over the next
couple of days. Thin and tender, they were excellent. The meat in
the goulash, however, was a bit tough.
Owner Julian Baranowski came to this country from Poland about a dozen
years ago, started a construction business, and then two years ago
opened the restaurant. His wife — also a Polish immigrant —
is "deeply involved" in the restaurant.
The good news for the Baranowskis is that the restaurant has become
"very popular" in the immediate neighborhood and that "very
nice people from outside" the neighborhood are also discovering
it. And that’s also good news for Trenton.
Julian Bistro, 925 North Olden Avenue, Trenton.
609-656-1600. Polish cuisine. Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and
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