by Andy Clurfeld

If you haven’t tried these 20 amazing culinary treasures, then you have yet to experience the full flavor of our state

Photography by Daryl Stone

New Jersey, the bountiful. Our swaths of fertile farmland, our seafood-rich ocean and bays, our orchards ripe with fruits, our bogs famous for berries. And, most of all, our people, diverse and devoted to personal heritage, serving forth the foods of their ancestors and imaginations. Don’t knock New Jersey’s culinary riches when I’m within earshot, because I’m armed with decades of eating experiences that I’ll use to bring you down.

Here’s my thinking, based on 50 years of Jersey-centric chowdowns: I wanted to make this list about the Jersey I knew as a kid, growing up in Somerset County, and I wanted to make it about the Jersey I have watched my home state become during the 25 years I’ve written about food. I wanted this list to reflect New Jersey’s food culture, past and present. I wanted to touch as many diverse facets of New Jersey’s eating culture as possible. Most of all, I wanted this list to reflect high quality, in humble and haute form.

I also wanted it to be fun. To that end, it mixes restaurants fancy and super-casual. It sports specific ingredients and icons. It taps into the ethnic riches that bring us a veritable United Nations of eating opportunities. It spans the length and width of the state and taps places famous and little known. It spotlights foods I’ve been eating since I was a kid and a couple I’ve only just come to know.

Do you have additions to this list? Bring them on…because they’re all likely places I had to, with regret and remorse, 86 from this list of 20 in order to whittle it down to the ultimate must-eats in the Garden State…

A Toute Heure • 232 Centennial Ave. • Cranford 908-276-6600 •

With 85 farms fortifying the kitchen, it’s no wonder the chefs at this true bistro of local ingredients seem to have an endless repertoire of gorgeous, delicious dishes. But it’s the menu’s list of “Mussel Pots” that brings me to my knees, mussels done both seasonally and soulfully, in portions with or without frites. Farm-to-table is what A Toute Heure is about, but the exquisite simplicity of its plates feeds my soul.

Alba Vineyards • 269 Route 627 • Finesville • 908-995-7800 •

Alba, located in bucolic Warren County near the border of Hunterdon, is home to some of the most lauded wines on the East Coast. It’s a must-stop on any Jersey countryside tour, and it’ll have you plotting a move, if you live in a suburban or urban locale. Make sure to tote home Alba’s divine Red Raspberry Wine, for this dessert replacement/enhancement is nothing short of world class.

Allen’s Clam Bar • 5650 Route 9 • New Gretna •609-296-4106 • no web site

Ever since I first encountered the French Fried Lobster Tail at Allen’s, I’ve been curious about how the ’tails served here could be so large. I’m not exactly lightheaded when I eat them, usually having polished off some steamed clams and chowder, but I still can’t quite wrap my head around their size. There might be culinary chicanery of some sort, but I’ll keep doing what’s necessary to get to the bottom of this exceptional partnership of the sea king and expert deep-frying.

ARC Greenhouses/Mr. McGregor’s Greens & Herbs 440 Oak Road • Shiloh • 856-451-8800 •

If you’re lucky enough to come across the Mr. McGregor’s brand of greens in a specialty market, buy them. Don’t think, buy. In a vast expanse of meticulously farmed greenhouses in South Jersey’s Shiloh, the best greens sprout and then are snatched up by some of the region’s top chefs. There’s all manner of produce, but the little guys—peppercress, wasabi mustards, red amaranth—turn me into a hungry rabbit.

Aunt Charlotte’s • 3 West Maple Ave. • Merchantville • 856-662-0058 •

Pretty, hand-painted chocolate, nonpareils, choice truffles—art meets sweet at this fourth-generation temple of confections, where folks make pilgrimages to fulfill their kids’ holiday wishes. There’s nothing not worth the indulgence, though there’s one item that likely will exceed expectations: Aunt Charlotte’s malted milkballs. Multiple layers take this humble candy-counter regular to dazzling heights of flavor you won’t believe till you try.

Cucharamama • 233 Clinton St. • Hoboken • 201-420-1700 •

James Beard Best Chef Award-winner Maricel Presilla is not just a celebrated chef, but a scholar, a former Rutgers professor and culinary historian who specializes in the foods of Latin America and Spain. (Her “Grand Cocina Latina” won top honors in cookbooks at last year’s Beard Awards, cementing her place in the food world’s pantheon of superstars.) Her restaurant? Oh, it’s all that—and more. Eat through her menu and you’ll earn a doctorate in Latin foods. At the end of your “studies,” plan a feast with friends around Presilla’s roast suckling pig. A triumph of tradition.

Drew’s Bayshore Bistro • 25 Church St. • Keyport • 732-739-9219 •

Chef-owner Drew Araneo, a multiple James Beard Award nominee, has a heartfelt menu of dishes inspired by New Orleans and Southern cookery. After trouncing Bobby Flay in “Throwdown,” Araneo and his signature dish winner Voodoo Shrimp became famous beyond Jersey’s borders. Justifiably so. Fans can’t resist ordering it time after time after time. Including me.

El Tule • 49 North Main St. • Lambertville • 609-773-0007 •

A Mexican-Peruvian combo, this Latin destination sports splendid takes on classics as well as more modern interpretations. I find myself in the mood for one or the other every time I eat here, but lately I’m leaning Peruvian: any of the ceviches, so resoundingly fresh, any of the quinoa dishes, particularly the Solterito de Quinoa salad, sprightly with vegetables and popping with the grain’s inherent nuttiness. Where has this food been all my life?

The Flaky Tart • 145 First Ave. • Atlantic Highlands • 732-291-2555 •

The pastries, the cakes, the cookies, the buns, the mousse-y things whirled into artfully angular cups, the sandwiches on croissants, the quiches—oh, everything the lovely and talented pastry queen Marie Jackson does at the mecca she calls “the bakery” is sublime. But here’s a tip: Whenever the “Kerry Nolan Scone” is on tap, grab it. In fact, grab however many Kerrys there are. It’s a scone made of bacon, Cheddar, maple and apple, and it was great cook Kerry’s dream. (Name sound familiar?Kerry’s the morning news host on WQXR in New York.)

Jhupdi • 1679 Oak Tree Road • Edison • 732-906-2121 •

One of the largest South Asian/Indian populations in America lives in and around this Middlesex County municipality, where there’s a wealth of Indian eateries. I’m invariably charmed by this South India specialist and its irresistible Thali platters, which offer a panoply of vegetarian selections from the state of Gujarat. Go for lunch one day, try a couple of the Thali platters, and find yourself wishing for seconds of bajri rotla and baigan bharta. And the cauliflower? Oh, my.

Melick’s Town Farm • 170 Oldwick Road • Oldwick • 908-439-2955 •

In the late summer of 1977, farmer-freeholder George Melick introduced me to a white peach—one from his orchards in the village of Oldwick that date back to 1725. Eating that succulent peach changed my life. George and his wife, Norma (“Try a Jonathan apple, Andy”), opened a world of produce possibilities for me. They’ve done the same for generations of New Jerseyans. Now, with children Peter, John and Rebecca running the 650 acres they own (including 120 acres sporting 5,000 peach trees and 20,000 apple trees), the fruits of the Melicks’ labors continue to feed and educate.

Mitsuwa Marketplace • 595 River Road • Edgewater • 201-941-9113 •

What Disneyworld is to a 6-year-old, this Japanese uber-market is to me. Prime produce, fishes, prepared foods, sweets and even an aisle with serious sakes. I’m transported to the Far East and inspired to bring home the ingredients for a feast that, however faintly, mimics Japanese culinary artistry. I snatch up the prepared foods and learn by eating at home.

Mustache Bill’s Diner • Eighth Street & Broadway • Barnegat Light • 609-494-0155 • no web site

The first time I had a fried flounder sandwich at this landmark at the northern end of Long Beach Island, I was riveted. The fish was pristine, the frying flawless. Even the tartar sauce hit the mark. That’s because owner Bill Smith buys that flounder right off the boats, from the island’s fishing fleet. In fact, everything at this diner is homemade, except for the French dressing. (Ah, the “why” of that’s a long story.) No wonder this place won a coveted James Beard America’s Classic Award.

Nasto’s Ice Cream • 236 Jefferson St. • Newark • 973-589-3333 •

Born in 1939 and celebrating its 75th birthday this year, the ice cream king of New Jersey started with old-family recipes of Sicilian-style ices and gelatos and kept pace with its evolving neighborhood. Now there’s mango and sweet corn in the lineup, as well as sea salt caramel and passion fruit. While proprietors Frank Nasto Jr. and Frank Nasto III give a nod to their vanilla, I have to pledge my devotion to my first Nasto’s love, the incomparable Honey-Fig Gelato.

Rat’s Restaurant • 16 Fairgrounds Road • Hamilton • 609-584-7800 •

Named for the hospitable character Rat in the childhood classic “Wind in the Willows,” sculptor and Rat’s mastermind J. Seward Johnson’s pet book, this French-inspired spot is set in the Grounds for Sculpture’s Giverny-esque landcape. Sunday brunch, a grand buffet that elegantly defies the same-old, same-old norm, is prime time to fuel on fare both modern and comforting, then stroll through an artful wonderland that hasn’t, and can’t be, duplicated anywhere else.

Shanghai Bun • 952 Route 34/Matawan Mall • Matawan • 732-765-8388 •

Chinese eateries abound in New Jersey. But Shanghai Bun is different, because of its Beef Sandwich. A few slabs of thinly sliced veined beef on a seeded bun that’s neither a burger bun nor a flatbread are spread with a secret sauce that’s a little soy and a little sweet and then topped with skinny batons of something allium and a flourish of fresh cilantro. It’s an enigmatic sandwich that enchants every time.

Valley Shepherd Creamery • 50 Fairmount Road • Long Valley • 908-876-3200 •

A visit to the Sheep Shoppe at this expansive, idyllic farm deep in the Morris County countryside may well net you cheeses for a year. Or, if you’re like me, cheeses that should last a year but don’t stretch for a week. Valley Thunder? Tewksbury? A tomme or wedge flecked with nettles? OK, it’s agony, but I’ll go with…my original favorite, Oldwick Shepherd.

White House Subs • 2301 Arctic Ave. • Atlantic City • 609-345-8599 •

Since 1946, this little sub shop has been putting to shame anyone who thinks slapping meat on bread is making a proper sandwich. The folks here hollow out the sub rolls, they calculate the right ratio of meat to cheese to bread to condiments. They are scientists and artists. They make the one and only White House Special, with extra salami, provolone, ham and capocollo. They are New Jersey.

White Manna • 358 River St. • Hackensack • 201-342-0914 • no web site

The slider-size cheeseburgers on potato rolls energized with a slap or seven of sautéed onions are meant to be ordered in threesomes. If you order fewer, you’ve either just had gastric bypass surgery or really don’t enjoy eating. There are fine burgers throughout New Jersey, but these little gems have a singularly sensational flavor, the perfect coming together of beef, bun and condiments. Plus, the close-clustered space surrounding the sushi-counter-like center of operations is pure community.

Zeppoli • 618 Collings Ave. • Collingswood • 856-854-2670 •

So where’s the Jersey Tomato on this list, you ask? Well, it’s a sad fact that too many of our farmed tomatoes today are being picked unripe and shipped out of state. But anything with tomatoes here at chef Joey Baldino’s peerless Sicily-centric Italian restaurant is worth ordering. And anointing for saintly qualities. I’m remembering the Panzanella Catania, a tomato-and-bread salad, with capers and a correct proportion of white anchovies. Bliss. Lucky us that Baldino left Philly for this side of the Delaware.


The Jersey Blue-Claw Crab, popping out of Jersey waters not far from you this summer. When the meat is sweet and the claws are fat with that meat, happiness is a certainty. What can you do with the crabmeat that our fisherfolk work so hard to catch? Make a sauce, with our Jersey tomatoes, and toss with pasta; make a salad, with our Jersey greens and lettuces; make a cake, with spices scored from our ethnic markets. Or eat it straight, as I do.

Editor’s Note: New Jersey’s bounty is both enviable and endless. We hope this list inspires you to make one of your own—and share it with us on our Facebook page.