The pandemic laid waste to New Jersey restaurants and our dining habits in 2020, but a guy’s gotta eat, right?
Actually, make that two guys, as Jeremy Schneider and Pete Genovese, in our thankless duties as food writers (eat everything in sight, let the company pay for it) ate our way around the state last year, masks and forks at the ready.
Here’s a list of the 50 New Jersey dishes you must try in 2021, based on the 25 best dishes we each tried in 2020. Pete did similar lists based on the best items he ate in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The only difference with this one is Jeremy is joining in on the fun.
The coronavirus and indoor dining restrictions each limited us in our food assignments, but we covered plenty of ground nevertheless (thank goodness for takeout).
Pete started the year by visiting pie shops around the state for a list of New Jersey’s best pies (you should have seen the happy smiles of colleagues when he brought those pies back to the office). He followed that up by driving nearly 2,000 miles for a list of the state’s best Greek restaurants. Pete later visited dozens of pizzerias for a list of New Jersey’s best new pizzerias; listed the state’s 35 best bakeries and 33 best doughnut shops; did a story on the 25 foods New Jersey does best; sampled 104 (!!) kinds of ice cream for an epic ranking of supermarket ice cream; did another statewide ramble for a ranking of the state’s 20 best Taylor ham/pork roll sandwiches and the announcement of the state’s best TH/PREC; listed the 44 best wing joints, 35 best ice cream stands/stores and the state’s best BBQ joints; ranked New Jersey’s 25 best hot dog joints; and profiled the best strip mall for food.
While Jeremy spent most of the year reporting on how the pandemic was affecting the New Jersey restaurant industry — including writing about the transition to takeout, challenges of outdoor dining and fears for a slow winter — he did plenty of eating, too. He wrote about deep-fried doughnuts in Turnersville, build-your-own bibimbap bowls in Ridgewood, Chipotle-style Indian food in Somerset and New Orleans seafood feasts in Jersey City. He wrote a love letter to Charlie Brown’s, which is down to one location in New Jersey. And he took a trip to Connecticut to prove New Jersey’s pizza is better.
Maybe they didn’t eat quite as much in 2020 as 2019 because they were busy with coronavirus-related stories, but they promise to make up for it in 2021.
So here’s the list, accompanied by snappy writing and mouthwatering photos. Our initials are at the end of each entry — JS for Jeremy, PG for Pete — so you know who wrote what. Enjoy, and have a happy — and most of all — healthy 2021.
I’m going to be naughty with my first selection and pick the Sin Buns at Hammerbacher. It’s the signature item at this little-known, but much-loved bakery, run by the husband-wife team of Paul and Lauren Erbacher. The Sin Bun is a cinnamon bun with Mexican cinnamon, brioche and royal icing. Warm them in the oven, spread on a little butter and bam! Note: Hammerbacher is open just three days — Wednesday, Friday and Saturday — and you may have to wait in line outside because only a few people are allowed in the store at any one time. But the wait will be so worth it. (PG)
You can’t say you don’t like duck until you’ve tried it cooked by David Viana. Heirloom Kitchen’s menu is ever-changing, but the “Top Chef” contestant’s take on the bird is a staple. The man is essentially the duck whisperer, creating such tender, flavorful dishes with it that you haven’t really had it until you’ve had his. When I went to the Old Bridge restaurant over the summer, they were serving what was similar to a teriyaki duck. The way he scores the duck skin makes it crispy and delicious while the meat is still succulent. Throw all preconceived notions about duck out the window and order this. (JS)
The best food assignment I had all year? The two weeks I spent driving nearly 2,000 miles around the state in search of New Jersey’s best Greek restaurants. There are plenty of Greek restaurants in the state, especially in Bergen County, but Greek food just doesn’t get the same respect as say, Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisines. The Greek Corner Grill doesn’t have the flash or sparkle of the high-end Greek restaurants, just down-home charm and simplicity. The owner took my order, rang me up and made sure everything was properly bagged. The moussaka is a gift from the Greek comfort food gods, and the lemon chicken soup was light and luscious. Saving the best for last: the Greek Corner Salad, a near-heavenly heap of octopus, calamari, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, fennel, arugula and romaine. (PG)
The simplicity and customizability of Chipotle with the amazing flavors of Indian food. Sound too good to be true? It’s real, and it’s spectacular. Masala Bay owner Anita Amin serves up bowls, naan wraps and more with a plethora of proteins and toppings. Hot fluffy naan wrapped around spicy, tender chicken and crisp veggies, with creamy raita, sweet tamarind date sauce and green harissa hot sauce? It’s a wild combination of flavors unlike anything I’ve tasted in New Jersey, and I crave it almost weekly. Amin’s falafel is delicious as well, and perfect for vegetarians. Oh yeah, and she makes naan topped with everything bagel seasoning. Just in case you forgot you were in Jersey. (JS)
A pizzeria inside a health clinic? That’s where you’ll find Bakeria 1010, part of a food court inside the AtlantiCare building on Route 9. The pizzeria’s owner is Michael Fitzick, the self-proclaimed “Pizza Jew.” Its dough is naturally fermented using a starter culture sourced from Naples, Italy. The long, slow fermentation results in a light yet crispy product, according to Fitzick. Forget the science — the pizzas are terrific. The Salsiccia, with fior di latte (a semi-soft cheese), sweet sausage, fried peppers, Gaeta olives and extra virgin olive oil, is sensational. Many leftover pizzas on my best new pizzerias field trip ended up with one of my neighbors, but not this one. (PG)
True Salvage Cafe is undoubtedly the coolest spot in the state to get a Taylor ham/pork roll sandwich. At first glance, it looks like a secondhand store, with cookbooks, classic rock LPs and old-time bicycles among the furnishings. There’s a kitchen back there somewhere, and it makes special sandwiches of all types, including a Taylor ham, egg and cheese, merely the best of its kind in the state. It starts with an eminently crusty/chewy roll from heralded Balthazar Bakery. There is a layer of cheese on top, followed by four slices of meat, a nice fluffy egg and more cheese. The result: a stunner of a sandwich. (PG)
Maybe it’s because I grew up eating cream of wheat for breakfast. Maybe it’s because the presentation was completely on point. But for whatever reason this bowl of Latin-style porridge, infused with vanilla and cinnamon and topped with bananas, has become my go-to comfort food breakfast. Warm, creamy and sweet but not overly so, it’s completely satisfying and goes perfect with a flat white or cortado from Hybrid’s Coffee’s java bar. Hybrid’s waffles, french toast and eggs in a blanket (in a brioche, not just a piece of toast) are all great, but you can get similar dishes elsewhere. Finding this breakfast dish that warms the soul and sticks to your ribs is much more rare. (JS)
Haddonfield doesn’t jump to mind as a tourist destination, but it’s a historic, charming town, and ranked #2 on my list of N.J.’s best small towns. Haddonfield Donut Co. makes some of state’s best jelly doughnuts, and the Bistro at Haddonfield is a popular lunch and breakfast spot. Just down a side street from the latter is Sanook Thai, whose slogan is “proudly traditional distinctly modern.’’ Know this: the soft shell crab with mango was one of my favorite appetizers of the year. Crunchy crab resting atop a bed of fresh, fragrant mango. I finished the entire dish in my car, something I almost never do. (PG)
Yelp crowned the pancakes at The Corner in Montclair the best in New Jersey at the beginning of the year. And while I have a healthy skepticism of the food rating site, I also have an unhealthy love for those pancakes. Yelp got it right. The southern-inspired brunch spot that serves biscuits with raspberry rosemary jam and cookies that are so thick and gooey you’d think they’re just cookie dough (in a good way) also serves up thick, cakey flapjacks with topped with poached apricots in vanilla syrup. They put the cake in pancake. They’re basically dessert for breakfast. And they’re the best in New Jersey. (JS)
When a pepperoni snob (Pete) raves about the pepperoni pizza somewhere, you know they’re onto something. For the record: He has nothing against pepperoni, just the boring, mass-produced kind found on the overwhelming number of pepperoni pies in this country. Tavolino, which made Pete’s best new pizzerias list, is located in a spare storefront in Wallington, known for one of the highest per capita populations of Polish Americans in the country. The Smokey Roni pizza is a pepperoni lover’s vision of paradise, with thick-cut pepperoni, fresh mozzarella and a spicy plum tomato sauce. We counted no less than 68 pieces of pepperoni. You know, in case someone asked. (PG)
It’s a good thing I don’t live in Asbury Park, because if I did I would spend every meal at Cardinal Provisions. Their menu routinely has me checking the traffic from Jersey City to the shore’s cuisine capitol. Their cacio e pepe eggs? The cranberry skillet cake? Campfire coffee with marshmallows? Amazing. But the first dish I ever had at Cardinal is still my favorite — the Weird Hash. Roasted market veggies, sausage, home fries, Pecorino Romano and a fried egg. A brunch dish that is absolutely delicious, satisfying and doesn’t make you feel like you need to be rolled home. Embrace the Brussels sprouts, people. But if you stuff yourself with Cardinal’s delicious pastries while eating this, I wouldn’t blame you. (JS)
The best all-around meals in Pete’s Greek food road trip at the beginning of the year came at Greek Corner Grill (see separate entry) and Mikonos. The latter’s Facebook posts stopped 3 1/2 years ago, but if you’re depending on social media for your restaurant recommendations, you’re heading down the wrong path anyway. The pastitsio, the Greek pasta with ground beef in tomato sauce, tasted as if it was just-made, not pre-made and nuked. The chicken souvlaki was enlivened by a perky little mustard sauce. The galaktoboureko, the custard-filled, honey-topped filo dessert, is just about perfect, and proof you can never get enough honey in your life. (PG)
Pete just about keeled over when he stepped into this cozy little bake shop — the warm, heady aroma of fresh-made cookies, cakes, pies and tarts was overpowering. The owner of Shannon’s Eyes on the Pies is Shannon Cheevers, a breast cancer survivor. In October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she donates a percentage of profits to breast cancer groups. The bourbon pecan pie is sweet, sticky, dense deliciousness. The deep dish blueberry is also recommended, as are the apple roses, thin-sliced apples with cinnamon and sugar baked into rose-shaped pastries. They’re wonderful warmed up in the oven. (PG)
You won’t be able to get the full Shan Shan Noodles until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — the nondescript restaurant in a Route 46 strip mall is currently closed for indoor dining. But just because you can’t see Shan Shan’s amazing chef’s balletically pulling their delicious noodles through their window into the kitchen doesn’t mean you can’t get takeout. Their dumplings are terrific, as is the beef wrapped in scallion pancake. But these fat, spicy, slurp-able noodles are the main attraction on an illustrious menu — so long that a waiter will bring you scissors to cut them up. (JS)
Sandwich startup Namkeen Hot Chicken is somehow tapping into both the hot chicken craze as well as the chicken sandwich arms race with their hot chicken sandwiches that feature Pakistani influences. Their classic hot chicken sandwich is great (with four different spice levels) but the Tikkaville Sandwich was my favorite. Topped with tikka sauce, coleslaw, pickled onions and mint chutney, the sweet and spicy combination makes for an amazing contrasting bite. But before you make the trip to Madison, check their website to see how they’re taking orders and if they’re open — they’ve been so popular since opening that lines are down the line and they’re selling out hours before closing. (JS)
Pete stopped at Point Lobster Bar & Grill in July on the recommendation of Rasheed Simmons, owner of Simply Southern in Belmar (the only reason he’s not on this list is because Pete didn’t eat there in 2020!). Point Lobster Bar & Grill is an offshoot of Point Lobster Co., a noted lobster and seafood supplier. The restaurant ain’t your usual Jersey Shore seafood joint, not with such dishes as colossal African prawns, truffled free range chicken, and bucatini bacon and clams. The pan-seared scallops tasted like they just came off the boat, and that risotto was a perfect accompaniment. Oh, and they make red and white sangria fresh daily. (PG)
New Jerseyans have feelings about breakfast sandwiches. And they’re feeling good about the breakfast buns coming out of Scram, a bakery that started as a food truck in Charleston and now regularly has lines down the block for their sandwiches. They only sell them on Fridays and Saturdays and they often sell out. The ham bun, with ham, egg, gruyere, Béchamel sauce and pineapple jam on a fresh brioche is a delicious (albeit pricy) sweet and savory combo that will have you looking funny at your Taylor ham, egg and cheese. Yeah, I said it. (JS)
The restaurant industry is hurting, but Get Stuffed is thriving. The pretzel shop that does sweet and savory creations sells out days in advance, with their hot, stuffed creations that range from sweet to savory and everything in between becoming one of the hottest delivery items in North Jersey. But do everything you can to get your hands on a Fluffernutter Bomb, a pretzel stuffed with peanut butter and marshmallow, topped with powdered sugar. You can feel your arteries clogging, but the warm, sweet, messy goodness of one of the most underrated sandwiches in pretzel form makes it worth it. Just don’t be surprised if you need a nap after. (JS)
Conrad’s opened in 1928 as a candy store. Even today, the chocolates, hot fudge, caramel, whipped cream and syrup are made from scratch in small batches. Check out the vintage artifacts and newspaper clippings in the window. Line forms to the right at the takeout window and make sure that mask is on! The chocolate ice cream is thick and fudgy, but the winner here is the black raspberry — sweet, silky and oh-so-good. (PG)
Anthony Mangieri, who opened Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach nearly 25 years ago and went on to garner serious acclaim with pizzerias in Manhattan and San Francisco, opened his Atlantic Highlands outpost earlier this year. It’s takeout-only for now; order at the walk-up window. The Neapolitan-style pizzas boast maybe the state’s most extravagantly puffy crusts, with a nice char around the edges. Both pizzas sampled here were standouts — the Bianca, with buffalo mozzarella, garlic, basil, Sicilian sea salt and extra virgin olive oil; and the Marinara, with San Marzano tomatoes, Amalfi wild oregano, garlic, basil, Sicilian sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. (PG)
I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t have Vietnamese food for the first time until after college. Now it’s one of my absolute favorite cuisines, and pho might be my single favorite type of soup. The national dish of Vietnam is aromatic and soothing, warming and satisfying. There are myriad great Vietnamese restaurants throughout the state, but the pho at Binh Duong in Bloomfield is the best I’ve had in the state. The broth is insanely flavorful, the noodles are cooked to the perfect texture and the beef is thin and rare. Loaded up with Sriracha, hoisin, sambal, Thai basil and lime? Completely soul-soothing. (JS)
Chef Mike’s ABG is an odd duck, nestled on the oceanfront behind the Island Beach Motor Lodge, where Pete stayed during his epic Jersey Shore walk. “Bringing sexy food back” is the slogan of executive chef Mike Jurusz, who talks fondly of his “salad days” at Ocean County Vo-Tech. Those lamb chops hit the spot after a long day’s hike, and the tuna spring rolls (upper left in photo) were a perfect app. The food was so good Pete ate here two nights in a row. The restaurant is located not in Seaside Park, as the website and Google tell you, but South Seaside Park, which is part of Berkeley Township. (PG)
Another breakfast sandwich? It’s the most important meal of the day, and this one has a LATKE on it. That’s right. If you didn’t get your potato pancake fix during Hanukah, head to Navesink for one of the most creative breakfast sandwiches you’ll find in a state that has a million of them. Salty, savory charred bologna, fluffy eggs, melty cheese and of course the latke that sets it all off. Big Mike’s Little Red Store has plenty of other impressive breakfast sandwiches (and sandwiches in general), but only one of them combines a deli meat with a Jewish comfort food like The Poppa. (JS)
Squeezed into a strip mall, A Taste of Greece is compact but cozy. “Don’t let its small size fool you,” the website informs. You have to walk through the kitchen to reach the restroom. The owner is Themis Mourelatos, a native of Athens. The lamb souvlaki smells hearty and heavenly, one of the better ones sampled on my search for New Jersey’s best Greek restaurants. The dolmades were Pete’s favorite of all the ones he tried on that mission, bathing in a luscious, lemony sauce like Greek food supermodels. (PG)
I kicked off a 2020 resolution to explore the food of more cultures by heading to Mount Masala in Voorhees to try Himalayan food. It’s comparable to a fusion of Asian and Indian cuisine, reflective of Nepal’s geography, with a unique set of spices unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. The unquestioned star of the meal was the sizzling momos, steamed dumplings in a spicy tomato chutney — and the flavor was good as the presentation. They come out looking like a steaming plate of fajitas, but taste way better. The spicy sauce had a kick without being overwhelming, and the dumpling itself was tender. Worth the trip to South Jersey for sure. (JS)
New Jersey is no stranger to amazing doughnuts. Topped with bacon, cereal and candy, stuffed with Nutella, creams and fillings. There are even everything bagel… doughnuts? But the best doughnut I had in New Jersey this year was even crazier — a chicken-fried doughnut. No, it’s not a chicken doughnut. “Chopped” champion Tim Witcher the the same way he prepares his chicken tenders at The Wing Kitchen — dipped in buttermilk, dredged in flour seasoned with chili, garlic and onion, and then dropped into the deep-frier until they’re a beautiful golden brown. It’s like funnel cake fried chicken. Crispy on the outside, sweet and melty on the outside. (JS)
Offshore BBQ is the new kid on the barbecue block. The storefront opened a year ago (the owner operated a food truck before that). He sure loves smoking meat: Besides pork, brisket and ribs, there’s smoked grilled cheese, smoked grilled cheese brisket, smoked grilled cheese smoked pork roll (yes, you read that right), smoked grilled cheese turkey, and, well, you get the idea. The brisket sandwich is loaded and lovely — fat slabs of juicy, pleasantly fatty meat swaddled inside Texas-type toast. The ribs rock — dry-rubbed, sauce on the side (wish every BBQ joint did this). The pulled pork sandwich is another winner: a truckload of juicy, tender meat. Don’t you dare leave without ordering the homemade coleslaw — tangy, vinegary. In a word, va-va-voom! Offshore made Pete’s most recent New Jersey’s best BBQ joints list. (PG)
No disrespect to tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but Mexican food goes so far beyond those staples, and Cinco De Mayo does them as well as anyone in New Jersey. The alambre de puerco is a subtly sweet and spicy shredded pork with bacon, pineapple, ham, and jalapeño all topped with cheese and served with fresh corn tortillas. Put the tortillas to good use and make what amounts to more authentic fajitas, or just grab a fork and go crazy. Arturo Andrew Sr., the longtime owner of Cinco De Mayo, passed away in July and his family is fighting to keep the restaurant open. So you’re not just getting amazing food, you’re helping keep an amazing restaurant afloat. (JS)
Grilled cheese at a Greek restaurant? Try the one at Lithos Estiatorio, and you’ll never look at grilled cheese the same way again. It’s a whopper of a sandwich, with the cheese (haloumi), red peppers and Greek yogurt coleslaw spilling out of a spacious bun. Also recommended: the chicken lemonata, with linguine, spinach and tomatoes in a white wine lemon sauce. I made the mistake of taking it to the office and not home. When will I ever learn? (PG)
The first thing I did after I ran my first half marathon in 2017 was hightail it to Gypsy Grill to devour their single best dish, that they happen to serve only on Saturdays: Koshary. A staple of Egyptian cuisine, it features rice, pasta, lentils, chickpeas and crispy fried onions in a spicy tomato sauce. The ultimate recovery meal after a race, or the ultimate carb indulgence. It’s spicy, satisfying, and sells out every Saturday, so call ahead to make sure they still have it. Oh yeah, and it’s vegan! One serving is more than enough for two normal meals, or a single incredibly gluttonous one. (JS)
The Pie Lady Cafe is a cute little shop, with a patio and tables for summer (or mild winter) pie eating. The mixed berry pie is fruity deliciousness, and Pete wants one right now. The blueberry and coconut custard pies are also standouts. (PG)
If I had one day left in New Jersey and could only go to one pizza place before leaving the greatest state in the country, I’m pretty sure I’d be heading to Santillo’s. But I’m still not 100% sure which pizza I’d get. His extensive menu is basically a pizza history lesson, with speciality pies named for the year they were popular in. In 2020 I fell in love with the 1960 pie, made with more sauce and less cheese. Sauce has long been my favorite part of a pizza, and Al Santillo’s is rich and delicious. Most saucy pies suffer texturally, but a Santillo’s pie is so sturdy and well-cooked that it holds up all the saucy greatness. (JS)
Pete knew he was going to like Casa Taco Bayfront Taqueria as soon as the hostess brought out a glass of cold, refreshing lime water while he waited for his takeout order. It’s those little touches that separate the good restaurants from the run-of-the-mill ones, and keep you coming back. The tacos are loaded here. They may want to think about double-shelling the tortillas. Pete tried all four tacos, but the carne asada was the standout. (PG)
Blue Steel Pizza opened in early August in the space formerly occupied by the Wooden Spoon. The handsome bar/dining room remains, and there’s a pizza oven toward the back. Dan dan noodles, tuna tostada, crispy cola wings, lamb bolognese and spicy braised chicken are among the offerings on the small but eclectic menu. The pizzas? First-rate. They’re Detroit-style: rectangular with a thick, crispy crust. All the pizzas are cooked in 8-by-10 inch blue steel pans. The Classic, with red sauce, mozzarella, brick cheese and fresh oregano, is the best-seller here, but the ricotta and sausage pizza is messy and marvelous, with a perky red sauce and pleasingly charred crust. (PG)
If you’re brave enough to try the Phaal Challenge — the curry Brick Lane claims to be the spiciest in the world, requiring a waiver to order and coming with a certificate of completion — more power to you. I’ve done it. I ain’t doing it again. I prefer Brick Lane’s second-spiciest curry, the vindaloo. A powerful punch of heat that not everyone can handle, while still delivering incredible flavor — that isn’t the case with the Phaal, and the wait staff will tell you as much. The chicken is my favorite, but it comes with lamb, goat, fish, shrimp, paneer, veggies or tofu. Some garlic naan and fluffy basmati rice? You have an absolute feast. (JS)
The Greeks is a lively little luncheonette, open since 1968, that attracts locals and truck drivers, plus ever-hungry students from nearby Lincoln Middle School. “Food with attitude” is the motto, and the feisty back-and-forth between the owner and regulars is priceless. No one layers its TH/PREC quite like The Greeks: cheese, two layers of meat, egg, three layers of meat, egg, two layers of meat, cheese. The toasted roll adds a crispy coup de grâce. It finished No. 2 in my ranking of New Jersey’s 20 best Taylor ham/pork roll sandwiches. The Sweet Home New Jersey, with pork roll sandwiched between French toast, is a sweet spin on the classic. (PG)
There are countless amazing Italian restaurants around New Jersey that have been around for decades. But let’s not sleep on the newer spot. Suprema has only been open since 2016, but if I could have just one last Italian meal in New Jersey I might head to Rutherford for their delectable pasta. Their chicken parm is great as are the meatballs, but the rigatoni vodka tops them all. It’s a straight-forward take on an Italian-American classic, even if it isn’t with the traditional penne. A rich, creamy sauce atop perfectly al dente rigatoni. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And it definitely ain’t broke. (JS)
Pulled Fork — cute name — opened in 2019 in bucolic Long Valley. You can get brisket, ribs and pulled pork. You can also order fried chicken, fried sausage and fried bologna sandwiches, plus a Texas Reuben (chopped brisket, provolone, American cheese, homemade dressing and slaw) and the Texas Hold ‘Em (pork or brisket on Texas toast with melted pepper jack cheese and chipotle mustard). They didn’t have brisket or ribs when I stopped, but the pulled pork sandwich alone was enough to get Pulled Fork on this list. Seasoned with sass and spice, it’s a winner. Try the cornbread pudding, too. (PG)
Filipino fast food chain Jollibee’s new location in Edison was so popular when it opened over the summer that the line spilled out into Route 1 and a police officer was needed to direct traffic. Most of the people lining up were there for the fried chicken, but their Yumbuger was my favorite of their offerings. It’s not exactly Instagram-worthy, but don’t let the meager appearance fool you. It’s a sweet, tender burger with a tasty dressing — one of the most unique burgers I’ve ever had. The whole thing reminded of me Salisbury steak, in a good way. The chain has two locations in Jersey City as well. (JS)
Spirito’s ravioli (or raviolis, as diehard fans of the restaurant insist on calling it) would likely be on the short list of most beloved individual dishes in the state of New Jersey. And you might not be able to get it much longer. The beloved Italian tavern has been a staple of Elizabeth’s Peterstown neighborhood since 1932, but it’s for sale now and there’s no guarantee it will continue operations with new owners. The delicate pillowy pockets of cheese and dough in a sweet red sauce are as good as their reputation would suggest. There’s plenty of amazing pasta throughout New Jersey, but there’s only one Spirito’s. So get it while you can. (JS)
Chicken souvlaki seems like a no-miss dish — how hard can it be to grill some meat and throw on some spices?— but you’d be surprised how many substandard ones I encountered on my search for New Jersey’s best Greek food. The chicken souvlaki at Pithari Taverna was a model of its kind — perfectly grilled, expertly seasoned, meltingly tender. Next to Italian (it’s in the blood, after all), Greek is my favorite cuisine. There’s a Greek restaurant minutes from my house. It’s a wonder I’m not there every day. (PG)
Toast? TOAST? Yes, toast. It sounds too simple, but stay with me on this one. There is something immensely satisfying about an incredibly simple dish (yes, like toast) being executed perfectly. Sunday Motor Co. Cafe has a full menu of toasts — as is the trend at brunch spots these days — and I’m not just talking avocado. Peanut butter toast with banana, walnuts, cinnamon and honey. Lemon ricotta toast with rosemary, olive oil and pink peppercorn. Heirloom tomato with prosciutto , lemon ricotta, basil and thyme. But my personal favorite is the raspberry jam toast with butter, lemon zest and maldon sea salt. Sweet, buttery, tangy, salty, all on a nice thick well-toasted piece of bread. (JS)
The Elias Cole, which opened in 1978, is a charmingly trapped-in-time roadhouse/luncheonette near the top of Jersey. I love its Facebook description: Serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee. It’s cash-only and beloved by bikers, who love the food and the sprawling parking lot. The coconut custard pie is a thing of baked beauty: Its crust, supported by a thick foamy meringue, arches toward the sky. (PG)
I mastered the solo beach day this past summer. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend it. You get there when you want, you leave when you want, you do what you want, you eat what you want. And I wanted to eat fried clam strip sandwiches. Mr. Shrimp in Belmar has a great one. A no frills roll with fresh, crispy yet chewy shrimp on a bun. Hot sauce? Sure. Put whatever you want on it. You can. You can keep the bellies, I’m all about the strips. There are few better things about living in New Jersey than eating seafood by the beach. (JS)
Empanadas are the economical compact car of the fast food universe — cheap, dependable, durable, maneuverable. The baked or fried pastry likely had its origins in Spain, but today many countries put their own spin on empanadas, including Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Argentina. The empanadas on Amigos stand out for several reasons — the sturdy, crunchy, whimsically curled shell and the fresh seasoned meat inside. My favorite empanada here: the hot and spicy beef cayenne. It lives up to the description. Good tacos here, too. (PG)
Papa’s Tomato Pies has been slinging pizza since 1912, and they claim to be the oldest pizzeria in the country. Yet I still feel it somehow doesn’t get its due as one of the elite pizzerias in New Jersey. Their regular pizza is incredible, with a sturdy and crispy crust topped with a delectable tomato sauce and cheese. But you can take it to the next level with their mustard pie, which features a layer of spicy mustard under the sauce and cheese. The sweetness of the sauce with the tang of the mustard kind of tastes like ketchup and mustard on a hamburger. Sounds crazy? Trust me, it works. (JS)
Buffalo wing sauce is pretty much the same the world over, so keep it away from my wings. Give me a different kind of sauce, or a dry-rub, any day. The Cajun dry rub wings at the Front Porch are proof you don’t need any damn sauce on wings for them to be great. The Front Porch’s wings made my most recent list of the state’s best wing joints. (PG)
The Amatriciana pizza at Massa Roman Square was the single best thing I ate in 2019, and it’s no surprise the pizzeria appears again here. I was there twice, once in February, once in September. Here’s my profile of what is already one of the state’s top pizzerias (watch for my list of the state’s best pizzerias, ranked, early this year). Massa specializes in old-school Roman-style pizza, — rectangular, not round or square. The dough is made with more water; the result is a less dense, more airy crust, a pizza that tastes less filling than others. Massa is a neighborhood pizzeria in name only; one visit and you’ll come away convinced it’s unique. (PG)
I have had plenty of amazing Japanese food in New Jersey, but I hadn’t had Japanese curry until 2020. But apparently it’s more popular in Japan than sushi. It’s much different than Indian or Thai curry, less spice-forward and more like a gravy. And Go! Go! Curry, a chain named for New York Yankees fan favorite Hideki Matsui, opened its first New Jersey location in Newark this fall. There are several proteins to choose from, like shrimp, sausage, fish, tofu and veggie tempura. I’d recommend the chicken or pork katsu, which is something like tempura meets a cutlet. Add in veggies and rice? It’s hearty, flavorful and unique. (JS)
I made the trek out to Hunterdon County to try the Animal Burger at Harper’s Table, which is their take on a burger from famed West Coast fast food joint In-N-Out. While the Animal was fine, it was their PB&J burger that really impressed me. I’m a sucker for peanut butter and jelly in general, peanut butter and bacon combinations, and peanut butter on burgers — and this half pound bad boy checked all three boxes. Peanut butter goes great with bacon (ask Elvis), jelly elevates it even more and then throw a burger in there for good measure? What’s not to love! (JS)
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