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The scene at Warsaw’s Bar Pod Barbakanem is distinctly not-of-this-era. A local’s joint in the midst of a tourist hub, it occupies the city’s storybook fifteenth-century New Town. Lace curtains keep the grey winter light from spilling in from the street, and from the ceiling hang dim electric chandeliers and a dusty disco ball. Middle-aged women with loose hair and bare arms stand over a stove that slumps to one side, dishing up pierogi and borscht, cabbage and eggs, and plenty of milk and meat. It’s Polish soul food, comforting and cozy—the dishes your babcia (grandma) would make—confident in their simplicity and hearty enough to sustain a chilly day of sightseeing in the city. And at the equivalent of a dollar or two per dish, it’s Polish fare that almost any Pole can afford.
Pod Barbakanem is a bar mleczny or “milk bar,” one of a dying breed of state-subsidized cafeterias in Poland’s urban centers. So named for the inexpensive dairy-based meals that were served in lieu of meat during times of rationing, milk bars first appeared in the late nineteenth century and have become emblematic of Poland's communist past. At incomparably lean prices, they offer quick, stick-to-your-rib staples like soups, stewed meats, and cabbage and root vegetable salads. But these institutions, relics of a political and economic landscape the country has outgrown in the years since communism fell in 1989, are now in danger of extinction.
Milk bars first appeared in the late nineteenth century and have become emblematic of Poland's socialist past
Poland boasts the most robust economy of the former Soviet Bloc and was the sole EU member state to see economic growth in the heat of the financial crisis in 2009. Over the past quarter-century, an onslaught of new, independently owned restaurants and international fast food joints has tilted the scales for eateries offering inexpensive food to wide audiences. According to the Telegraph, more than 350 of the 500 milk bars across the country had closed by 2011. And at the end of 2015, Poland’s newly appointed Law and Justice Party leveled another challenge for proprietors of the bars, slashing their public funding by 25%.
While Poland’s Ministry of Finance asserts that demand for the bars has not been high enough that the cuts should warrant alarm, many Poles take the dramatic reduction as evidence that the milk bar is an endangered species. For patrons of the cafeterias and those who grew up eating there, the end of the milk bars would mean not only the loss of a treasured piece of Polish culture, but also of one of the few places pensioners, university students, and other low-income individuals can still turn for a hot meal.
Karolina Manka, a pianist who ate regularly at her local milk bar as a music conservatory student in Krakow, recalled that the bars were a “kind of life-saving” alternative to the fast-food joints that began to proliferate after the fall of communism. “In the center [of the city], you’d have quite expensive restaurants.” Manka said. A milk bar, by contrast, “had this kind of home-cooked-meal atmosphere—and it was quick.”
As the landscape for dining out has evolved in Poland and subsidies for the cafeterias have dwindled, many Polish citizens have responded with protest. Even before the most recent round of budget cuts, the battle to protect the milk bars reached a fever pitch when the Ministry of Finance announced last year that food prepared with spices other than salt, sugar, and vinegar would no longer receive ministerial grants—a back-door way to all but eliminate subsidized meals on milk bar menus, which rely on spices like marjoram, bay leaf, and paprika. Those new regulations sparked widespread controversy, and after four months, the government finally quelled public outrage by lifting the restrictions.
“Fighting for the milk bars was the first time I realized what fighting for the right of the city means,” said Joanna Erbel, an urban activist and the Green Party candidate for Warsaw's 2014 mayoral elections. To Erbel and her contemporaries, the battle to keep milk bars up and running is part of a larger crusade to retain the country's democratic public spaces. “Milk bars are probably the most egalitarian places in Poland,” Erbel said. A shared love of pierogi and kotlet schwabowy—Poland's answer to Wiener Schnitzel—brings Poles together from all walks of life, she explained. “At a milk bar in the city center, you can see the guys who have a lot of money and work at corporations...just next to the guy who is homeless, or really, really poor elderly people," Erbel said.
Erbel was a chief organizer of the populist campaign to reopen Prasowy, a bar in Warsaw's Śródmieście district that closed in 2011. She and fellow demonstrators—predominantly squatters, academics, and members of the city's leftist middle class—occupied the shuttered cafeteria on a December afternoon with red-checkered tablecloths and vases of artificial flowers to serve milk-bar fare to over 200 people in just two hours. Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that as police surrounded the scene, the crowd of demonstrators chanted "Raz, dwa, trzy"—one, two, three—"pieee-ro-gi!" Prasowy’s is a rare success story: less than two years later, the refurbished bar opened to the public with a renewed commitment to serving the individuals who fought for its future.
Prasowy’s renovated interior betrays Poland’s nostalgia for the diminishing cafeterias: a bright, Bauhaus-inspired space that gives a cheeky nod to the milk bar’s better days. Like the popular chain Mleczarnia Jerozolimska (with whom it now shares an owner, Kamil Hagemajer), Prasowy gestures cheerfully toward the future of a democratic Poland, even in the unfavorable hands of the ultra-right-wing Law and Justice Party. But to find the milk bar that captures the transitive spirit of the bars’ and Poland’s history, go to Bar Pod Barbakanem—dimly lit, delightfully unmodern, and situated in the heart of the city’s (not-so) New Town.
On a weekday at lunchtime at Pod Barbakanem, turnover is high, and the milk bars' contentious politics go largely unnoticed. Its menu is still brimming with Polish favorites: clear lima bean borscht has a vinegar bite, while the Ukrainian variety is bulked up with meat, and fuchsia chłodnik soup, also beet-based, is thickened with yogurt. Pierogi, straight out the boiling pot, are garnished with lard renderings that crackle and melt in the mouth like pop rocks. In the way of Polish staples, there’s little left to be desired. And whether you’re a native, an exchange student, or an American tourist, it’s a slice of local life that just about anyone can take part in. "Many other social activities are more exclusive to different groups [or] interests or tastes,” said Michał Kielan, an artist in Wrocław. “This is one of the most inclusive places you can imagine. Because everybody has to eat."
Bar Pod Barbakanem
Mostowa 27, Warsaw
Morgan Childs is an American writer based in Prague.
Sometimes it takes a while to notice your own patterns. SAVEUR covers food across the world, but we noticed recently that we’ve been focusing a little more heavily on one corner of it: Japan.
We’re not alone; world-renowned chefs keep making the case for the case for Japan’s singular culinary amazingness; we’re seeing Japanese influences spread everywhere; and tourists are wandering deeper into the country and traveling with more confidence. There’s a reason Matt Goulding’s Rice, Noodle, Fish, a food and travel book about Japan that’s anything but a typical travel book, was one of our favorite reads of 2015.
So in the interest of pure daydreaming, why, exactly, is the SAVEUR staff fighting for plane tickets? It comes down to a couple key points: the Japanese obsession with perfection and details, that makes even mundane dishes taste a little special; and the brilliance with which Japanese cooks drink up influences from everywhere and make them all a little better. Here’s what we mean.
High end Japanese cooking doesn’t need anyone to fight for it, but any country you can snack well in is a country worth celebrating, and the Japanese snack with the best of them. Even at 7-11 and department store basements, the baseline snack quality is just plain high; in a food culture where detail is everything, train stations serve gorgeous boxed lunches and rice balls become craveable things. We’re still thinking about the friends we’ve made at late-night snack shacks, and the way even simple grilled chicken is elevated to an art form taken just as seriously as sushi or soba.
Do not let us loose in Japanese craft shops because we will lose all of our money and be forced to stow away on a barge to get back home. Fine woodwork, porcelain design, leather, glass—there are Japanese traditions for all of them.Japanese knives are some of the best in the world, and shokunin—artisans who actually deserve the moniker—have been using the same techniques passed down from sword-smithing to make them. The same goes for traditional ceramics, from tea bowls to clay pots, with techniques and designs that are now world-famous.
There’s an expression in Japanese—dai yame—to be “woken” by shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit. It means to come alive through a good drink, because the Japanese know how to have a good time doing so. Between the high-flying cocktail artistry and whisky that drives obsessives wild, to say nothing of the snack bars, izakayas, and karaoke spots fueled by everyday beer and shochu, there are few places with greater appreciation of a good drink.
Because Even When You Think You Have the Country Figured Out, It Always Surprises You
“The thing about Tokyo is you could live there literally forever and never know it,” our digital director Jessica Glavin mused after her trip. It’s why ramen mastermind Ivan Orkin calls Tokyo the greatest food city on Earth, and that’s only the beginning. Done your Tokyo trip? Shpatzired through Kyoto? Then Okinawa, where the local cooking is unlike anything you’ll find in the rest of the country, bitter melon, black sesame doughnuts, and all.
Video: How to Make Chawanmushi, Japan’s Incredible Egg Dish
Seen from the sky—which is to say, observed on the in-flight video map during our final approach—the island appears as a triangularish football being punted toward the Maghreb by Italy's boot. It's a pixelated reflection of Sicilian identity itself, which hovers midway between North African and European. That intersection is what brought me here. I've come in search of a particular idea, a local expression, a secret password into this place's soul: mal d'Africa.
The mal refers to heartsickness, as in the feeling of missing Africa. For Sicilians, mal d'Africa is a kind of phantom continent syndrome, a sense of nostalgia for a lost homeland, a homesick longing for the landmass next-door that played such an important role in shaping their way of life. We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elsewhere. But people here speak of having mal d'Africa when they've been traveling away from home for too long. They miss Africa; they need to get back to Sicily.
On the morning I arrive, everything outside the airplane's window is frosted in white clouds. From the lemon gelato sky, I descend into Palermo, a honking, city-sized souk lined with palm trees, closer to Tunis than Naples. When the campanile rings at the city's main cathedral (its architecture Arab-Islamic, Byzantine-Orthodox, and Norman-Catholic), it sounds more like interstellar gamelan music played on gongs than Continental church bells.
Shaking off the jet lag, I refuel on a freshly squeezed orange spremuta from a small café in the heart of the Ballarò street market, a lively, semi-chaotic bazaar that has animated Palermo's daily life for more than a millennium. Much is on offer here (obsolete electronics, bootleg perfume), but the real draw is the produce. Glossy black olives as big as plums sit next to giant preserved lemons and tubs of glowing red harissa. Piles of long and skinny cucuzza zucchini are stacked on top of their leafy tendrils, ready to be transformed into minestra. Raisins and pine nuts come packaged together for convenience, as so many Sicilian dishes combine them anyway.
On one street corner, a guy is hawking five kinds of eggplant. “La caponata!” he shouts into the morning air. We strike up a broken Italo-English chat in which he informs me that eggplants were first imported into Europe via Arabs who ruled Sicily a thousand years ago—and that the combination of sweetness and acidity that goes into a caponata is itself a hallmark of the Arab-Sicilian touch. “Agrodolce,” he says, sending me off with a pat on the back before continuing to holler at passersby.
A few other vendors are pepper-spraying the atmosphere with their abbanniate, their stentorian cries, using the venerable Palermitan method of selling-by-yelling. A Falstaffian fellow bellows “Babbalucci!” over and over. Sicilian for snails (as opposed to chiocciole or lumache on the mainland), it's a euphonious word that is believed to be derived from the Arabic.
These babbalucci are sold alive in immense squirming mounds, their shells clinking together like delicate castanets as they spill out of their crates. When I ask the snail man how to eat them, he puts his garlicky fingers to his lips and makes a loud kissing sound. “Baci!” he adds, laughing uproariously, making sure I understand that the Sicilian way is to smooch the snails right out of their shells.
I stop for some cornetti at a popular stand. The owner assures me that her cornetti filled with pistachio cream aren't just molto buono, but that they are, in fact, “crazy amaze-y.” Why is that, I inquire? Because they use pistachios from Bronte, the veritable Città del Pistacchio on Mount Etna. Pistachios are yet another treasure brought to Sicily when it was under Islamic rule, and the filling puts an interesting twist on the old tale that croissants were made to resemble the Ottoman crescent moon.
Nearby stalls sell pannelle di ceci (Arab-style flat chickpea flour fritters) as well as arancini, those well-known bread crumb-battered and fried rice balls whose original recipe is said to date back to the tenth-century Kalbid dynasty.
It doesn't take long to feel deeply steeped in the general North Africanness of this place—especially if that's what you've come looking for. This is an expedition I'd been hoping to do for years. It began, as these sorts of things do, in a tangential way. Skimming through an encyclopedic tome about the history of gastronomy in Quebec, where I'm from, I happened across a passage suggesting that French Canadian cuisine has its roots in the Muslim food of ninth-century Italy. Sicily was then central to Arab life in the Mediterranean, the conjunction of East and West, North and South, Africa and Europe.
Muslim settlers introduced Italy to the durum wheat they could use for pasta, to rice for risotto, and to sugarcane for dolci. Citrus fruit, spinach, chickpeas, artichokes, and sesame seeds—all of them, plus eggplants for caponata and myriad other ingredients, were brought to Sicily from North Africa. Arabs overhauled their colony with new systems of agriculture, using terrace cultivation and siphon aqueducts for irrigation. These, together with their agrodolces and arancini and world-remaking cooking techniques, gifted this land with what's sometimes known as cucina Arabo-Siculo.
Several excellent books by Mary Taylor Simeti and Clifford Wright explore the subject of Arab contributions to the cuisine, but they were published in the late '80s or '90s. A lot can change in 25 years. How evident is the North African connection now? Can the layers of influence still be disentangled? Can traces of the ancient even be isolated in the flavors of modern Sicily? I intend to spend the next week finding out by driving around the island in search of surviving connections.
My guide for this mission is Marco Scapagnini, who presently screeches up in his Ford Galaxy SUV. Scapagnini, a scruffy, jangle-nerved, 43-year-old with a charming, devious smile, is a journalist, guidebook writer, and proprietor of a tour company called NicheItaly. Despite the many niches he's explored, he's never set off in search of evidence of North Africa's enduring culinary influence, and he's as curious as I am about what we'll find.
Our itinerary calls for us hitting a different town every day: The plan is to head first to Erice—a mountainous fortress in the sky—then down the western coast and along the south all the way to Siracusa. We'll end up on the slopes of Mount Etna in the pistachio wonderland of Bronte before circling back to Palermo along the northern coast. It's an ambitious circuit: Sicily is bigger than it looks on the airplane's seat-back screen. I'm confident knowing that a seasoned local is driving, though our trip begins on a wobbly note when Scapagnini immediately reverses into a fountain or a public sculpture or some large container of some sort outside the market. I can't tell what it is because he drives off without getting out to check the damage. “It was just a vase, for palm trees,” he reassures me, as we lurch away from Palermo.
The town of Erice is an hour-and-a-half drive without traffic. Unfortunately, there's always traffic; it's rumored that the roads are maintained in such pitiable condition by the Mafia. They could take some cues from the Phoenicians, who used to rule this part of the island, as some of their stone walls—built at the time of the Punic wars—still stand around Erice. The town itself, perched atop a cliff, is perfectly situated for protection against invasion. The way up is a steep, winding, cobblestone path that we decide to tackle by foot. (There's also a cable car to the summit.)
The trek is absolutely worth it: Near the top, we come to the greatest pasticceria on Heaven or Earth. Since 1963, the former nun Maria Grammatico has been running this world-famous pastry emporium, specializing in mind-blowing almond-based confections made using ancient recipes from nearby San Carlo convent, where she was cloistered in her youth.
Today she runs her busy shop like an iron-fisted despot, with a squadron of employees scurrying around in a state of permanent trepidation. I tell Marco that she seems like an empress, the conquering pastry sovereign of Erice. He nods. “She's tough, and she can be a bit rude,” he confides. “But she treats me like a grandson. And she gives me excellent relationship advice.”
Before we get into details of his romantic life, our attention is diverted to a platter of specialties. I would have imagined that the thing to have here must be the cannoli; this is Sicily, after all. And they are, in fact, incredible—the ricotta both super fresh and not overly sweetened, the ends dusted with chopped pistachios from Bronte—possibly the only truly great cannoli I've ever eaten.
“Now try the real things,” Grammatico mutters, unveiling a tray laden with frosted green ping-pong-ball-sized pistachio-rum orbs. They're deliriously good, and my teeth instantly feel like they're shellacked in icing sugar. Up next are puffy, custard-cream disks called genovesi, followed by a platter of sweet biscuits that Grammatico says used to be called “nun's breasts,” as well as some small, dome-shaped almond-and-egg-white cookies called sospiri, or sighs. “These are the amazing almond pastries she learned to make in the convent,” Scapagnini tells me, sighing.
Grammatico shushes him and says that the only secret is using the right almonds—bitter almonds from Avola. “They are the best almonds in the world,” she adds, looking at me like she has never uttered anything more important in her entire life.
“And how did they get to Sicily?” I ask.
“Arabs brought them,” she answers, without hesitating and without changing that exquisitely serious facial expression.
As I sit there, taking notes, Grammatico starts dispensing grandmotherly relationship advice to Scapagnini. “She's telling me that the way to conquer a Sicilian girl is to be persistent and not give up,” he says, filling me in. “Maria is always right.”
“So you're in love with a Sicilian girl right now?”
“I'm always in love with a Sicilian girl,” he replies.
I'm coming down from my pastry high by the time we reach our next destination, Firriato Winery, which operates a swanky resort in the hills of Trapani, a picturesque seaside town where people eat anchovies al fresco in front of beautiful, dilapidated, baroque buildings on old cobblestoned streets. Property manager Alberto Oliviero, a bald Marlon Brando lookalike with an extremely calm demeanor, joins us at the winery's lookout to take in the sunset. He's so Zen that merely being in his presence feels like attending a meditation retreat.
The question of where to go for dinner comes up. Oliviero ponders this for a few languid moments, taking a sip of white wine. “Hostaria San Pietro,” he whispers, finally, in his smoky, soft-as-incense voice. “It's one of my favorite restaurants in Trapani.”
When we arrive, at the stroke of midnight on a Wednesday, the place is utterly jam-packed. People are eating at makeshift tables that have been set up in the crowded parking lot outside. We get placed at the end of a long, plastic-covered table next to some extremely happy Sicilians. Hostaria San Pietro doesn't bill itself as anything other than a Sicilian restaurant, but the food tastes distinctly North African. The Tunisian-born chef Fadaoui Badreddine starts us off with an antipasto misto served on lovely hand-painted plates. We devour a perfect caponata, its zingy celery-and-pine-nut-spiked agrodolce undertones giving the eggplant a tastebud-spanking raciness. Just as satisfying are Badreddine's peperoni con la mollica (roasted red and yellow peppers in bread crumbs), his plump cubelets of cured mackerel, and his cipollata di tonno (tuna with onion). My favorite, however, is the baby cuttlefish in a cherry tomato sauce thickened with its own ink and leavened with flashes of harissa.
Badreddine also makes a superb brik, that classic savory Tunisian pastry, his filled with butterflied sardines marinated in vinegar. Their slightly sweet-tart brininess pairs spectacularly with a bottle of the local zibibbo, which everyone around us seems to be drinking. Traditionally used in the production of fortified marsala, the grape has nowadays been repurposed to make fresh, light, low-alcohol quaffers like the one we're having: al Qasar by Rallo. Its label tells the story of Sicily's indebtedness to the Arab gardeners of yore who figured out how to grow bountiful fruit on the green hills all around us. It feels so rewarding to stumble upon a detail like this—a seemingly insignificant twiglet of information that manages to illuminate the entire forest of history and feeling we're trying to navigate.
It's not that it's been difficult to find proof of the Arab influence in Sicily. Quite the opposite, actually—in the short time I've been here, it's already clear that the island's Arab heritage is so pervasive that it's essentially woven into the fabric of life. It's simple: Hostaria San Pietro is as Italian as it is Maghrebi. Back home in Quebec, you don't need to look very hard to realize that the province is Frencher than the French. The province's motto is Je Me Souviens—it means “I remember”—although nobody knows exactly what it is they're supposed to be remembering. The same thing applies here: Mal d'Africa remains a phenomenon because the island's interconnected Arab-Sicilian past is still so alive today.
As I'm making my tipsy notes on a thin paper napkin, it occurs to me that Arabs first brought papermaking to this part of the world. The oldest dated European paper document was signed in 1102 in Sicily—and here I am almost a millennium later making my living by scribbling down thoughts like this: Would we even have paper napkins without Arab Sicilians? Is there anything we aren't unknowingly indebted to them for? Are we all Arab Sicilians without even realizing it?
This line of dreamy inquiry is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of the pasta course—al dente busiate (a coiled fusili-esque pasta made in Trapani) tossed with garlicky almond and tomato pesto alla trapanese. It elicits cries of joy from everyone at our communal table. “Salute!” cries Scapagnini. He's having a blast. I'm ecstatically happy. It's the wee hours of a weeknight and we're sharing a beautiful, ridiculously cheap wine that carries a message of inclusivity and respect. Our mission, we agree over yet another toast, is a resounding success so far.
The next day we navigate through our zibibbo hangover from the town of Marsala (from marsa Allah, or “God's harbor”), where we see salt ponds dotted with brilliant pyramids of freshly harvested sea salt crystals, south along the coast. We stop in the town of Mazara del Vallo, whose central neighborhood—a warren of narrow, pretty streets—is called the La Casbah. We finish the day in Menfi at La Foresteria, a hotel run by Planeta winery. Here the chef prepares an edible illustration of Arab-Sicilian integration: pasta con le sarde. The dish, which combines minutes-fresh sardines with raisins, pine nuts, and saffron, is the archetype, the quintessence, of the way people ate here a thousand years ago—and the way they always will.
One thing about a dish as elemental as this: I'm starting to realize that it's impossible for a traveler like me to dissect things in any conclusive way. Sicily has had so many conquerors, and there's simply no way to pull apart all the intermingling strands of culture in order to ascertain what is precisely “Italian” and what's “Arab” and what's not anything of the kind. At a certain point—ideally sometime after having a homemade seafood couscous lunch in Ortigia and sampling the life-changing pistachio ice cream at Caffetteria Luca in Bronte—you have to give up trying to isolate the various influences and accept that countless aspects of life in Sicily have been informed by Arab culture in some way. It's deep and apparent and meaningful, but it's also a cloud of influence as dense and intangible as the lemon gelato sky that greeted me upon my arrival.
Perhaps what makes the Arab and Italian combination so compelling is simply the way it so naturally reflects the convoluted, mixed-up nature of life here today. Thoughts of caponata are running through my mind as we wind through the town of Ragusa, whose stone-cube buildings seem positively Libyan. This stunning mountainside community is also home to a bakery called Giummarra, which manufactures what may be the best street-food specialty I've had anywhere. It's called scaccia, and it's a baked pizza-bread roll-up filled with tomato sauce and D.O.P. caciocavallo cheese. Scapagnini is going on about how it's conceivably related to Tunisian briks, albeit oven-baked rather than deep-fried. The moment I bite into it, though, I lose interest in knowing where it came from or what its pedigree is. All I know is that it somehow encapsulates the magic I think of when I think of the timeless land of Sicily.
Get the recipe for Seafood Stew with Almonds and Couscous»
Get the recipe for Baked Rice Cake with Ham and Cheese»
Get the recipe for Caponata»
Get the recipe for Corkscrew Pasta with Eggplant and Tomato-Basil Pesto»
Get the recipe for Scaccia»
Travel Guide: Sicily
Where to Stay
One of the best things about this modestly sumptuous palazzo is its location next to the souk-like Ballarò street market in Palermo.
Piazzetta Lucrezia Brunaccini, 9, Palermo
Baglio Sorìa Resort
This brand-new, super-stylish boutique hotel is found on the grounds of Firriato Winery's Baglio Sorìa property in the hills above Trapani.
Contrada Sorìa, Trapani
The excellent COS winery operates this simple, elegant, 19th-century palazzo, whose courtyard reflects the tradition of Arab architecture.
S.P. 3, Vittoria
Ortigia is an ancient island off the coast of Siracusa, and the excellent Hotel Gutkowski makes a perfect base from which to explore the surrounding area.
Lungomare di Levante Elio Vittorini, 26, Siracusa
Where to Eat
Trattoria Piccolo Napoli
A classic trattoria that specializes in fresh seafood and also happens to make the best pastas and contorni in Palermo. Get anything with anchovies, pine nuts, and raisins.
Piazzetta Mulino a Vento, 4, Palermo
Hostaria San Pietro
The soul of Arab-Sicilian food today, Hostaria San Pietro is one of the best restaurants in Sicily. Drink zibibbo! Reservations are essential.
Largo Porta Galli, Trapani
Pasticceria Maria Grammatico
It's impossible to list all the masterpieces that Maria Grammatico crafts out of bitter almonds and Bronte pistachios—just savor each one.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 14, Erice
The world's freshest tuna carpaccio is served at this beachfront restaurant in Menfi, where bluefin tuna are caught using an old Arab fishing technique.
Via Friuli Venezia Giulia, 9, Menfi
Viri Ku Cè
A meal at Scoglitti's seafood temple starts with tutto pesce: crudi of langoustines, plump white and red shrimp, crimson-tongued clams, and swordfish involtini—and that's just the appetizers.
Via Riviera Lanterna, 29, Scoglitti
A trip around Sicily is even more fun if Marco Scapagnini's tour company, NicheItaly, takes care of the logistics.
Corina Weibel goes grocery shopping just like anyone else. She puts a list together every Sunday and cross items off as she goes. But her grocery list isn’t of the Post-it variety; it’s more of the multi-page spreadsheet type. And where she shops, there is no frozen food section. Instead of a shopping cart, she pushes a well-used two-wheeled dolly stacked with multiple crates. Weibel is the chef of Canelé in Atwater Village, California, and picks up the bulk of the produce she needs every Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market—the most exciting and produce-diverse market in the city.
It takes just a short walk past two or three tents to realize the market’s diversity. There are stinging nettles and squash blossoms, bread and grains, cheese, cherimoyas and chayotes, rhubarb, greens and green tomatoes, so much citrus, melons (bitter and sweet), figs and walnuts, peanuts, okra, mangoes, and long beans.
“LA is centrally located, so farmers come in from all different microclimates,” Weibel says. “That’s the luck we have at this market. Farmers come from all over the state and it gives us such a variety of produce.”
We meet at 8 a.m. at the intersection of 2nd Street and Arizona Avenue on a Wednesday, the biggest day for the market, now in its 35th year. It’s in Santa Monica on Sundays too, but in a different location, and there are only 30 farmers compared to Wednesday’s 75, another reason the Wednesday edition is the one Weibel and many chefs consider the heart of LA’s restaurant pulse.
“I would say 95% of the produce I use comes from the Santa Monica Farmers Market,” she says. She has been shopping here for 20 years. She grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in England and Switzerland. But after attending the New England Culinary School in Vermont, and reading about Alice Waters, she tells me she realized, “I have to go to California.”
Weibel’s first trip to the market was in the ‘90s, when she was working at the since-closed Campanile, which, having opened in 1989, was one of the first restaurants in Los Angeles to celebrate local farms and farmers. “Romeo was a teeny bopper back then,” Weibel says as we walk up to a yellow tent with “Coleman Family Farm” printed on it. “This is Romeo,” she says. “He’s Bill and Delia’s son.” His hand dwarfs mine. He’s tall. His smile is wide and genuine.
Romeo Coleman drives 86 miles each Wednesday morning from Carpinteria, where he runs the farm his dad started in the ‘60s. In 1996, after Coleman graduated from Cal Poly, he took over the farm.
“We’re near the coast,” Coleman says, “so we get more moderate temperatures and have longer seasons. There’s more of a constant heat.” At Coleman Family Farm, spring ingredients grow well into summer, and summer ingredients grow into into fall. The extended growing seasons play to Coleman’s advantage, as he’s able to provide sought-after ingredients like lettuces, kale, and peas almost year-round. “The ocean is a big factor, and the coastal valleys have a lot of air movement,” he says. “So the heat never really settles, and neither does the cold.”
This is quite different from Flora Bella, James Birch’s farm located two hundred miles north of Santa Monica in Three Rivers, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Birch has farmed here since 1989, though he was out of town this Wednesday. So his wife Dawn made the three and a half hour drive to Arizona Avenue. “I left at 2 a.m. last night,” Dawn told me. She was expecting fog (there was) and knew the drive would take longer (it did). But by 8 she was fully setup: root vegetables, cabbage, and greens like red mustard, mizuna, and the farm’s arugula, coveted by chefs citywide, Weibel included.
“James and I have always debated about the flavor of our produce,” Dawn says. “Is it the water, or is it the soil?” Obviously, she says, it’s both, and the combination produces what many chefs consider some of the best produce available in Los Angeles.
Things are much warmer closer to San Diego, in Valley Center, where Peter Schaner has been farming Schaner Farms since 1983. “It’s the best place in the United States to grow avocados,” he says, thanks to the dry, steady heat there. “Citrus and other frost sensitive crops really thrive in this area too.” So along with a variety of eggs (emu included), this is what you’ll find on the Schaner’s tables and stacked in the back of the truck: avocado, guava, makrud lime, kumquat, Meyer lemon, blood orange, and pomelo. “Schaner isn’t certified organic, but he doesn’t use any pesticides,” Weibel would tell me later. “He just doesn’t pay the fees to have the label.”
“Over the years, you learn the true values that these farmers have,” says Weibel. The relationships she’s built with them have come from time, and visits to their farms. “These people are working hard and they’re making really good food,” She says. But the relationship goes both ways. “The farmers are very thankful the chefs come and support us,” Schaner says. “Chefs really care about the farmer’s operation, and see that their support is needed for a sustainable farming operation.” Coleman would chime in later, adding, “The chefs have really helped out, because it allows us to grow stuff that they like and that we can grow and make a living off of.”
Weibel says there are Wednesday mornings she wakes up and wishes she could sleep in, or take the day off altogether. “But once I get here,” she says, “it’s therapy.”
Welcome to Hawk’s Illustrated America, a monthly series following illustrator Hawk Krall’s journeys through the back roads of the U.S. in search of our country’s most obscure and delicious regional specialties.
As a child of the Philadelphia area, I’ve always been a fan of tomato pie, which means a simple square pizza that consists of thick dough and tomato sauce, sometimes with a dusting of Romano or Parmesan cheese, served at room temperature, and more common at old-school Italian bakeries than pizzerias. It’s sort of thing you love if you grew up with it, and you attribute its greatness to some secret recipe handed down from generations of Sicilian bakery folk.
Part of what distinguishes tomato pie from what we traditionally think of as “pizza” is not just how it’s made, but also how it’s sold. Anything falling under the general banner of “bakery pizza” is rarely served hot, unless you’re lucky enough to walk in the door when it comes out of the oven, or if you order a whole pie. It’s also almost never referred to as a whole “pie” or “pizza”—the lingo demands ordering tomato pie by the “tray,” “sheet,” “half-sheet,” or “box.” You’ll find bakery pizza cut into squares and sold in a bakery case next to rolls and pastries, not kept warm under a heat lamp.
You can find similar bakery pizzas in little pockets across the country—pretty much anywhere that has old Italian bakeries and locals that support them. There’s Utica tomato pie, Rhode Island pizza strips, northeastern Pennsylvania “pitz,” and Chicago bakery pizza. And then there’s one that’s always thrown me, a specialty of the Tampa, Florida area: scachatta. Almost identical to Philly tomato pie—square, sauce-based, and served room temperature—it’s distinguished by the addition of meat cooked into the sauce, something you don’t find in any other tomato-pie-like dishes elsewhere. The meat is theoretically based on something Sicilian, but down in Tampa, it takes on an exciting Cuban spin.
Tampa scachatta is one of those culinary-linguistic conundrums, sharing a similar name and heritage to various pizza-like breads on both side of the Atlantic, but with a murky origin that’s hard to pinpoint. On my tour of Tampa’s Cuban and Italian bakeries, I saw it spelled scachatta, scacciata, and at the more Spanish and Cuban-leaning establishments, escachata. An old article from the Tampa Tribune in the 1950s (the earliest reference I could find to American scachatta) spells it scaciata and scaciato, and it describes a recipe that calls for oregano, chorizo, and Worcestershire sauce. In Sicily, scacciatta (not to be confused with scaccia or sfincione pizza) is a double-crust baked pie that’s more calzone-like than the Tampa version, where farther north in Italy, schiaciatta usually refers to a denser focaccia or flatbread with various toppings.
Tampa scachatta (I’m sticking with the Italian-American spelling to differentiate from the above Italian specialties) is more like Philadelphia tomato pie or Rhode Island pizza strips, sauce-based with a lighter dough and served at room temperature. You’ll find it almost exclusively at Cuban-Italian hybrid bakeries, side by side with Cuban bread, guava pastries, and cannolis. But even within one region there are variations; some of the more Cuban-leaning scachatta goes heavier on the spices, and possibly even includes corn or cassava flour in the dough.
After touring the local scachatta scene, the clear stand-out was from a bakery called La Segunda. There the dough is soft, flavorful, and uniquely yellow, thanks to the uncommon addition of egg yolks. The sauce, enriched with onions, green and red peppers, rosemary, and oregano, is some of the best I’ve had on this sort of pizza anywhere—not too sweet, balanced in the way you only get by making the same thing for a long, long time. And while most scachatta calls for chorizo, the meat here is ground beef, cooked until it melts into the sauce like an Italian-American red gravy.
La Segunda Bakery has been around Ybor City for 101 years, serving the Cuban, Italian, and Spanish folks that work together in cigar factories, bakeries, and restaurants, and it’s melded together traditions from all those influences.
Their first location, “La Primera,” burned down, and it’s been La Segunda (literally “the second”) ever since. The bakery was founded by the current owners’ grandfather, Juan More, a soldier from Spain who fought in the Spanish-American War in Cuba, discovered Cuban bread there, and eventually settled in Tampa with the recipe—including the signature palm leaf baked onto every loaf of bread, said to keep Segunda’s extra-long loaves baking evenly in the oven.
La Segunda bakes around 20,000 loaves of Cuban bread a day, and it’s been making scachatta for as long as anyone can remember, thanks to someone in the family who noticed something similar in Italy ages ago. While it’s impossible to point to who first brought scachatta to Tampa, La Segunda’s ancestors are in the running.
At La Segunda, the lines between Cuban, Spanish, and Italian are pretty blurred. Scachatta sits next to Cuban devil crabs and stuffed potatoes; a muffaletta sandwich lies side by side on the menu with Cuban sandwiches and medianoche. The Patrinostro sandwich—a more Italian combination of capicola, mortadella, and provolone, but served hot and pressed on cuban bread—is outstanding. Along with the scachatta, it’s a great example of the Italian-Cuban culinary harmony that you see in Tampa—and nowhere else.
La Segunda Bakery
2512 North 15th Street, Ybor City, FL 33605
Where Else to Get Scachatta
Though La Segunda may be your top scachatta destination, it’d be a shame not to call out the other worthy stops on my scachatta tour.
Probably the most well-known scachatta source; here the pizza is sold by the box and shipped all over the world. The crust is thicker and a bit sweeter than La Segunda’s, closer to Philly-style tomato pie.
2909 West Cypress Street, Tampa, FL 33609
Angelito’s La Cardidad
A great, tiny Cuban bakery next to an auto body shop, where the scachatta sports a thicker crust with a good amount of meat. There’s more spice here, giving the bread a heavier Cuban spin.
4425 West Hillsborough Avenue, Tampa, FL 33614
A more Italian spot closer to downtown Tampa, with a thinner crust and just a spot-on, well balanced sauce. Similar in style to La Segunda’s.
6821 North Armenia Avenue, Tampa, FL 33604
Out in Brandon, this bakery also makes a yellow-crusted scachatta, but rumors say that instead of egg yolks, the crust gets its color from corn and cassava flour.
737 West Brandon Boulevard, Brandon, FL 33511
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
There is no sound I associate more with the three years I spent in India than the whistling of pressure cookers. For the first two years, though, this constant aural accompaniment to life in our leafy South Mumbai neighborhood was abstract, a reminder that mothers, aunties, cooks, and maids were hard at work in kitchens nearby.
The home my wife and I shared was a studio apartment in an area full of charming, if crumbling, colonial and Art Deco apartment buildings, bordered on two sides by the sea. Our four-story U-shaped apartment block was a short walk from the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace hotel—two of the city's most iconic landmarks—but far enough from the throngs of tourists and the freelance guides, souvenir sellers, and scamsters who flock to them. Life in our neighborhood was propelled by the informal economy of household foods. Vegetable sellers laid out their goods at dawn on tarps on the sidewalk, joined by hawkers of ingredients such as dried red chile peppers, fresh coconuts, and, when they were in season, the superlative Alphonso mangoes. Each morning an elderly man in a pristine white kurta pedaled through the neighborhood on an old bicycle with two enormous milk cans affixed to each side, and “fishwives” in brilliant-colored saris canvassed the neighborhood with plastic tubs full of fresh seafood balanced on their heads, often trailed by fat, feral cats. Even the newspaper dealer, in addition to selling publications in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, English, and Gujarati, offered several exciting varieties of banana. Taxis parked in the shade and drivers disappeared into their backseats for a solitary fried feast when snack vendors emerged in the afternoon.
My wife had taken a job on the launch of a travel magazine and I worked from home as a writer. We loved Indian food and considered ourselves well versed in it, having eaten it regularly in London and New York, our respective homes. Soon, though, we realized how little of the cuisine we'd truly been exposed to. While living in India, we made a point of seeing as much of the country as possible, and food proved the best introduction to the various regional cultures. It became clear that what we knew was mainly the Mughlai and Punjabi food that defines much of Indian cuisine abroad, but soon we came to prefer things like the spicy, meaty cuisine of Chettinad in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the mustard-centric Bengali take on Chinese food, and the sweet, bottomless Gujarati thalis that challenged our notions of how much we could eat in one sitting. We came to schedule flights so we could hit our favorite restaurants, including a roadside café near Goa's airport and various kebab shops scattered around New Delhi. The best food, though—what we now miss most living in New York—is what we came to eat at home every day.
At first, Pushpa cooked for us. She was our maid (most expats in Mumbai had maids), a woman of uncommon industry and few words who dressed in the traditional Indian salwar kameez and had long hair twisted into a tight braid. She usually made a lentil stew called dal, along with chapatis (round, thin breads), and a simple vegetable dish, typically cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, or peas. Nothing fancy.
I had a few abortive attempts at making dal and other favorites. A lesson with a previous maid revealed only the disturbing levels of salt and oil she relied on. Cooking from a cookbook never worked either—I was intimidated by the use of so many different ingredients, especially spices, many of which I'd never cooked with. And a lot of cookbooks I bought either contained westernized recipes or assumed a fluency in Indian cooking techniques that I didn't possess.
Eventually, I asked Pushpa if I could look over her shoulder as she cooked two dishes: dal (limitless varieties of which are found all over India) and sabudana khichdi, a fry-up of tapioca pearls, peanuts, and spices that I fell in love with during our first weeks in India.
Indian kitchens are the domains of Indian women, and Pushpa seemed bemused by the prospect of teaching a Western man. At first I just watched, taking notes in a leather-bound notebook I kept in the cutlery drawer. Soon I was participating, chopping this or stirring that. Our lessons were supposed to be just once a week, but before long Pushpa would let herself in and ask, “Are we cooking today?” The answer was almost always yes.
The pressure cooker loomed large. As far as cooking implements go, it's the most intimidating. Not only do they have a reputation for exploding—the internet is rife with videos of pressure cookers spewing their molten contents—but you can't lift the lid to see how things are progressing. Ours was a particularly terrifying example of the genre. Bought in the local produce market, it had a wobbly handle that needed to be reinforced with scotch tape, and the rubber sealing ring quickly went slack. For some reason, Pushpa had to bang it against the side of the counter to break its seal. But she relied on it for cooking everything from a pot of masala chickpeas to a single potato. She used it because it cooked things quickly—no small consideration when you spend your day cooking pulses—and because rice relies on pressure to become sufficiently fluffy. Mostly, though, it was in the service of her profound frugality, since it required about half the expensive propane to cook things like the Keralan variety of brown rice we favored.
Between her own household and the half dozen she worked in, Pushpa prepared about ten meals a day. She washed and chopped vegetables, rinsed and picked over lentils and rice, and cleaned up with remarkable speed, always seeming calm, never running late. She tasted food by vaulting it from the spoon into her mouth, thinking, mistakenly, that I wouldn't want her eating from our cutlery. She had all manner of tricks, including cooking chapatis directly on the gas flame until they puffed up and adding some water to a flipped-over frying pan lid, which she said helped cook vegetables by allowing condensation to drop back into the pan.
Before long, we settled on a basic division of labor. Out of four dishes, we'd each make two. I loved to get creative with the raita, a seasoned yogurt dish used as a condiment, and I'd make it with carrots, beets, cucumber, mint, or coriander. Pushpa usually handled the chapatis and stuffed parathas, which I could make but only in oblong or malformed shapes. We'd split the difference, with her making the dal and me the vegetables or vice versa. Often I would glance over for validation that the onions were soft enough, or to ask whether I'd added enough spices (usually I hadn't). Pushpa disliked sharp objects and refused to use the paring knife and Microplane I'd brought from New York. She took pride in her ability to open a young coconut by smashing it on the floor without losing any of the precious juice. She also loved arguing with our fruit seller, whom she said was a badmash, “a cheater person.” She bragged of beating his prices down and sent back undersized pomegranates and unripe custard apples. She was happy to do the shopping, but was skeptical of a new organic grocery in our neighborhood, seeing it as a pointless extravagance. “You go to Organic,” she'd say, preferring to deal only with her network of cheater people.
Our tiny apartment became a laboratory of Indian cooking. All of our closeted clothes began to smell of onions and garlic, and an hour or so after we'd finished, my eyes would water. We began to cook with the ceiling fans circulating the humid Mumbai air at gale-force levels.
Soon Pushpa became prideful about her food, suggesting new dishes and cooking things she'd never made. I had a copy of Pushpesh Pant's heroically comprehensive India Cookbook, which has a thousand recipes spanning the subcontinent, but Pushpa refused to engage with it. It was an affront. If I wanted to make something new, she'd say, “I don't need that book.” She wasted nothing, constantly figuring out uses for leftovers, which were often thrown into the dal or stuffed in parathas. Once she foraged in the fridge, emerging with some leftover ends of a fish we'd made a curry out of, a potato, and some wheat bread and turned it all into tikkis, or croquettes, with fried fish. Another time we had a giant bush of leftover dill, an herb always sold in unreasonable quantities. Pushpa cooked the whole thing with lentils and peanuts, creating a dish that was one of the most interesting I'd tasted in India—and have never seen, before or since, on a restaurant menu anywhere. Pushpa always favored “full masala,” but I liked to use fewer spices, allowing a couple of strong tastes to stand out, like mustard seeds and curry leaves. We both liked quick-cooking, sweet lentils like masoor or mung dal, and I insisted on minimal oil.
On the last day of our stay in Mumbai, Pushpa didn't let me cook. She made a prawn pulao, a rice dish we had never cooked together before, and presented me with a stainless steel mortar and pestle for crushing peanuts and a hand-cranked coconut grater, subtle reminders of the two ingredients that feature in so much of Maharashtrian cooking. The prawns and the tools were, she said, “gifts from my side.” In return, I gave her the paring knife and the Microplane, which she gingerly accepted and promised me she would come to terms with.
The leather-bound—and now food-stained—notebook is a nice memento of our lessons. I'd hate to lose it, but it wouldn't be catastrophic. I know the recipes by heart. I understand the basic principles of Indian cooking and can read between the lines in cookbooks, employing the techniques Pushpa taught me, which continue to bear fruit.
Now, when people ask me where I go in New York for Indian food that reminds me of India, I tell them I make it myself. I've even become evangelical about pressure cookers, though sadly, the expensive one I now own doesn't whistle.
“Meatballs, olive oil, basil,” read one of the crumpled sheets of paper. “Spaghetti, tomatoes, garlic,” instructed another. These weren’t erstwhile grocery lists, but rather, actual recipes assiduously procured from the 70-year-old Southern Brooklyn staple, L&B Spumoni Gardens, after an extravagant vetting process (involving multiple getting-to-know-you “sit-downs” in the form of banquet-style dinners), and a six-hour long photo session where they sent out 12-some odd dishes; not because they were intended to be shot, but just, you know, because.
Of course, there was no translating “spaghetti” into step-by-step, easy-to-follow recipes for at-home cooks…especially with accompanying photographs of shrimp, veal and fish. This was going to require another sit-down.
No matter; I was making slow and steady progress in my courtship of L&B, while working on my Brooklyn Chef’s Table cookbook two years ago. I wanted to write a book that explored of the evolution of the borough’s dining scene—as told through the stories of and recipes from its most influential restaurants—beyond the trend-chasing modern restaurants that grapple everyone’s attention. (As a dyed-in-the-wool native, I’d be damned if I was going to write yet another insular treatise on the farm-to-reclaimed table spots of Williamsburg).
Which brought me to L&B. Originally a horse-drawn wagon back in 1938, peddling pizza and spumoni throughout Gravesend and Bensonhurst, L&B has remained justly famous for those signature items all these years later; especially the Sicilian-style square, considered by many to be New York’s best. As such, obtaining a recipe was proving damningly elusive—not that you could blame the family for being suspicious about someone trying to copy their recipes.
So my attention eventually turned to the adjunct restaurant instead, added to the current, three-building compound sometime in the 1970s. If I couldn’t have the square, I would happily settle for spaghetti, and my opportunity arose when mutual friends arranged a dinner; i.e.; a chance to substantiate my character and be vetted over lasagna and eggplant parm.
That night I learned one of Brooklyn’s best-kept secrets: L&B’s restaurant is far from some red sauce-stained way station for when it’s too cold to eat pizza on the picnic tables outside. Its “chef’s table” dinner—and off-menu experience reserved solely for those in the know— was unilaterally thrilling, one of the city’s most distinctive, astoundingly affordable chef’s table experiences—audaciously hidden in plain sight. To this Brooklyn-boosting writer (who adamantly believed she knew everything there was to know about exceptional eats in the borough) that initial, four hour-long feast was humbling; to say nothing of parmagiana-free.
The key is not to look at the menu, which continues the ruse with standards like fried calamari and ziti with vodka sauce. L&B has actually inserted a more overt mention of the chef’s table recently, but even that undersells the spread to a comical extent, referencing a four-course family style ‘tasting’ sized for two to 200 people, priced at $50 to 70 per head.
What they fail to mention is the ever-changing roster of four to 14 dishes, delivered on massive, groaning platters: from an ‘opening act’ of arugula pesto-slicked oysters, long-stemmed Roman artichokes, bountiful bibb lettuce salads, and a face-off of poached and crispy shrimp; to a progression of pastas, occasionally accompanied by fat, cracked lobsters, their cavities brimming with scallops, white fish, and orzo; followed by an imposing parade of proteins such as blackberry-sauced salmon and finely marbled steaks, teamed with olive oil-anointed mashed potatoes and garlic-bombed broccoli rabe. And then there are the myriad, charming flourishes (such as a palate cleanser of lemon sorbet, proffered in a goblet), as well as the veritable Carnevale float masquerading as dessert; which I hesitate to lessen the impact of through description, but a dainty scoop of spumoni it definitely ain’t.
Sure, most of the surrounding tables remain anchored by pedestals of pizza, but as chef and owner Lenny Kern later informed me, “I call the take-out window our slot machine. Because whatever money I make from that, I put right back into the restaurant. You see that pie over there? It just bought me the next size up of shrimp.”
Not only did his conviction strengthen my resolve to earn a recipe, it irrevocably altered the narrative that had already formed in my head. I originally imagined that L&B has stayed afloat on a cushy cloud of nostalgia, a 70-year-old pizza joint gone stagnant. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In its own way, L&B has been steadily, almost imperceptivity evolving, and inspiring even its most set-in-their-ways guests to change along with it.
As I sped through editing a series of already expertly-formatted recipes, obtained from Brooklyn’s young gun-run, media-savvy restaurants, I continued laying the groundwork for a meaningful relationship with Kern; I engaged in industry gossip while he regaled me with salty stories over the phone, courtesy of Frank Sinatra’s trusted toupee-maker and colorful L&B regular.
And so it was a month or so later that I found myself back at the restaurant, hoping to finally expound on a napkin scrawled with the word meatballs (to this day, I’ve never seen a meatball at L&B). For the next two hours, as I sipped espresso and repeatedly turned down offers of “a little snack,” Kern meticulously broke down his off-menu dishes, aided by gentle nudging to assign quantifiable amounts to “some fig molasses.” Nearing on 10 p.m., with four full-fledged recipes in the bag (no matter that I’d originally asked for two), he gathered his team and treated us all to dinner at one of the most fashionable new Italian restaurants in Williamsburg. And as I stiffly sat there in the too-chic dining room, sipping on too-expensive wine and picking at palm-sized portions of preciously plated pasta, all I wished was that I was all the way back in Gravesend, wrist-deep in artichokes at L&B.
L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11223
An old traveler's adage: The more ramshackle the restaurant, the more soulful and satisfying the food find. So here I am at a spot in Wenchang, China, perched along the canal and facing Three Corners Street, with rickety tables, pink plastic lawn chairs, and tarps strung overhead that shade from the fierce sun. Several older men in flip-flops just sit here, for no reason other than it's midafternoon on Hainan Island, and the air is so sweltering and sticky the smart thing is to remain motionless until sundown.
This restaurant specializes in Wenchang chicken, the hometown specialty, and it is called, fittingly, Wenchang Chicken Restaurant. The 63-year-old owner, Sung Shen Mei, tells me it has operated continuously here since 1927. His grandparents, he says, were the first to make a living serving the dish.
When I ask to watch Sung cook, he brings me to a tight, greasy closet of a kitchen with a wood-burning stove heating a wok of simmering broth. Half an hour earlier, he'd rubbed the chicken's cavities with salt and ginger and lowered them into the broth, beige from dozens of bird baths before it. Now, Sung uses two-foot-long wooden dowels to fish out the whole, head-on specimens, and they emerge glistening from comb to claw.
Next up: a glass-enclosed alcove by the front of the restaurant, open at the top, where a medieval-looking cleaver sits on a wooden board that has been chopped concave. There's noise from all directions—incessant honks of three-wheeled motorcycles, fireworks crackling in some nearby alley—and under it all the alluring whack-whack-whack of the meat cleaver, a Chinese Pavlovian trigger if there ever were one. In 30 seconds, Sung breaks down the chicken into two-bite segments, then arranges them on a plate with rubbery blood cakes and chopped gizzards. He carries it to a table on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, along with a tray of chopped ginger, garlic, red chile, sesame oil, and the orange-green citrus fruit calamansi (tasting like a cross between a lime and a kumquat), which he combines into a tart, savory, tingly dipping sauce. The mixture is classically Chinese except for the calamansi juice, which stands in for vinegar, an island twist. The recipe hasn't changed at Sung's place in 90 years.
This, before me, is Wenchang chicken, the progenitor of one of the most beloved culinary exports of Southeast Asia: Hainan chicken rice.
In Singapore, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries, Hainan chicken rice has achieved last-meal cult status, and the dish is known for the clean taste and relative simplicity of its components—poached chicken alongside a bowl of chicken-fat-slicked rice and cool dipping sauce. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, this was my hands-down favorite meal. And why not? It was unfussy, it was homey, it was skin-on chicken.
For many years after I'd moved to the United States, true Hainan chicken rice eluded me. Even in cities with robust Chinatowns, the versions available were inferior to the ones at home. But recently, I'd seen Hainan chicken rice beginning to gain traction stateside. Each time I'd come across a version at a neighborhood restaurant or in the press, I would yearn for a proper plate of my childhood favorite. The solution? To hunt down the original version and eat it where it was born rather than where it spent its formative years.
Standing in that thick midafternoon air outside Sung's ramshackle restaurant, I aim my chopsticks for a thigh piece, naturally: It's the tastiest quadrant of a chicken. What I taste first is that blond chicken skin. It's plump and fatty as lips. There's a luscious, gelatinous quality, and the flavor of chicken oil leaching from it is as indulgent as the fat cap of a rib-eye steak. Then I notice the meat—toothsome, gamy, and flavorful like wild turkey or pheasant, but after I dip some into the sauce and chew for a bit, a sweetness comes to the forefront. It occurs to me that what it really tastes like is an exaggerated form of chicken, both delicious and jarring. It brings to mind the apotheosis of other foods: the buttery, marbled beef of Kobe, the fruity, peppery olive oil of Liguria.
This Wenchang chicken experience feels unmistakably Chinese, looks Chinese, and Sung is hovering over me seeking validation in Chinese small talk. Yet, something about this chicken feels miles away from the China I know.
Pagodas, the Great Wall, modern skyscrapers, smog-filled metropolises: That's China. But on Hainan, as far south as you can stand on People's Republic soil, your mind's imagery of China requires a certain recalibration. This is China operating at a slower pace, where fresh juice from just-hacked-open young coconuts is sold street-side for less than a cup of tea. The food is colored by ingredients that are tropical in nature—pineapples, mangoes, rambutans, that calamansi. You don't normally associate China with coffee plantations, but they grow beans here and drink their brew alongside chewy coconut rice cakes. While air pollution on the mainland is so hazardous that face masks are considered fashion accessories, Hainan's capital city, Haikou, enjoys the cleanest air readings in China. The seaside resort of Sanya sits on the south end of the island, where in recent years the Chinese government invested billions of dollars hoping to turn it into “the Hawaii of Asia.” But outside Sanya, in towns like Wenchang, little tourism infrastructure exists. It's a place where roadside dog restaurants operate openly, the type of business the government might sweep under the rug if more Western guidebooks steered tourists here.
Still, Wenchang occupies an important place in the diaspora of Southeast Asian food. Many of the Chinese who migrated to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand during the turn of the last century came from here, and a lot of them took jobs in the restaurant and hospitality sectors. One dish in particular brought back memories of home—Wenchang chicken—and only after it left Hainan Island did it evolve into Hainan chicken rice and explode in popularity throughout Southeast Asia. At its source on Hainan Island, Wenchang chicken remains a homegrown source of pride.
While there might be a thousand restaurants here serving it, what I find is that, instead of each dish looking like the one I grew up eating—poached, sauce on the side—many are cooked differently. Though poaching is indeed the preferred method, I also come across it fried or baked. It's less about recipe than it is about origin: a dish rooted in a specific place, the same way champagne is from Champagne and everything else is just sparkling wine. The sole requirement of Wenchang chicken is chicken from Wenchang, bred to taste of its sweet island life.
Goofy human-sized chicken statues, with human hands and human shoes and dilated human pupils, stand watch over the entrance of the Longquan Wenchang Chicken Industrial Farm, a half hour outside Wenchang. A government bureaucrat accompanying me (the farm is not open to the public so I had to arrange my visit through official channels) hands over a glossy booklet, and on the first page is sheet music for a song about Wenchang chicken (not the one on YouTube sung by Wu Duo Dong—with the lyrics “Never miss Wenchang Chicken! Nice skin texture, with fragrant meat!”—but the other Wenchang chicken song, by Yang Ji Min).
As we walk, I see two-month-old chickens enjoying their lunch recess: coconut flesh, rice, peanut cake, and Chinese yam, which they'll eat until they hit their final full weight of around three pounds. (American broilers are a comparative four pounds-plus.)
As we sit down for lunch at the Longquan farm restaurant, the plate of splayed chicken before me illustrates a critical difference between Western and Chinese tastes. For the Chinese, texture is as important a consideration as flavor. It explains the market for jellyfish, shark's fin, and bird's nest—foods with little taste, but with an in-mouth slip-and-slide quality that many Westerners find off-putting. The Chinese also tend to prefer meats with bony shards embedded. As a child of Hong Kong, I can speak for the tactile joys of chewing on a piece of crudely hacked, marrow-exposed chicken, slurping out juices, then using only my mouth to maneuver and extract the denuded bones. Wenchang chicken checks off those boxes.
Back in the farm's kitchen, cooks insist Wenchang chicken must be prepared with a loving touch. Rather than drop the carcass into the pot in one fell swoop, the bird is dipped in and out of the water several times before full submersion—like testing a hot tub with a single toe to get acclimated.
Poaching is only step one of the process. I watch as a chef takes pieces of cooked chicken, insulated with a quarter-inch layer of fat, and stir-fries them in peanut oil and dark soy. The skin somehow manages to pull in the tastes of sweet molasses and soy while morphing in texture from tender to sturdily crisp. Yes, this fried version also counts as Wenchang chicken. And it would knock the socks off any goofy cartoon chicken statue.
One night a few days later, I head to Education Road, where students from several nearby schools converge and every conceivable food cart caters to their thrifty needs at all hours of night. There's Bao Luo noodles, a soupy mélange of pork slices, peanuts, and beef jerky over rice noodles. Curried fish balls and sausages appear on sticks, and indeed, whole Wenchang chickens hang from meat hooks.
I find several ladies hunching over the sidewalk outside a restaurant. They are tending to a wok filled with a mountain of salt cooking over a low charcoal flame. Passersby gawk—it's a shrewd business decision. With archeological precision, these ladies proceed to excavate whole chickens buried within the salt mound.
Chen Ji Ying is the 65-year-old proprietor of Ji Ying Salt Baked Chicken. She greets me holding a stack of 100-yuan bills like she's starring in a hip-hop video. Chen, I'm told by students here, is quite the figure within Wenchang chicken lore. For the past 16 years, rather than using the poach-and-sauce method most other restaurateurs employ, she's been baking her birds in salt, to rave reviews from happy customers. I'm told at least a dozen other Wenchang salt-baked-chicken restaurants exist on the island.
I sit down for dinner. Then out come the plastic gloves. Put them on, Chen motions to me and my table mates. She places the bird in the center of the table. This is a serious development. Without communicating a word, she's saying, have at it.
Four pairs of hands simultaneously attack, Hungry Hungry Hippos-style, tearing into hot chicken skin and flesh. I return with a tender shard of meat slippery with chicken fat. I taste it. There is no dipping sauce. This doesn't need dipping sauce.
After many renditions of Wenchang chicken on Hainan, and a lifetime of eating poultry before that, this single salt-baked bite hits the reset button. It's meltingly rich and pushes the boundaries of savoriness. Guttural noises tumble out. Chicken has never tasted more of itself. Julia Child, Colonel Sanders, and a legion of bar kitchens in Buffalo found success on some level, but as I swallow my first bite, I'm convinced that only on Hainan Island do chickens become the best possible version of themselves.
Get the recipe for Wenchang Chicken and Rice with Calamansi Dipping Sauce
Get the recipe for Salt-Baked Chicken with Congee and Pickled Mustard Greens
Get the recipe for Rice Noodle Soup with Pork and Pickled Bamboo
Get the recipe for Rice Cakes Stuffed with Coconut and Brown Sugar (Yi Bua)
Way out in Miami's western Flagami neighborhood, far from the activated almond milk-selling vendors in Coconut Grove's organic market and South Beach's tourist-packed Lincoln Road Mall, lies the one the market an outsider is most likely to miss, but the one that definitely shouldn't be ignored: El Palacio de los Jugos.
An open-air food market that attracts everyone from Ferran Adrià to Martha Stewart to 22-year-old Midwestern girls like myself, El Palacio de los Jugos translates to “The Palace of Juices” but it’s more of a palace of every edible Latin good. Crowds of people squeeze through narrow aisles to get to the various food stands, calling to the cashiers in Spanish and pointing to fatty chicharrones, mounds of pea-flecked arroz amarillo, and stewed ropa vieja. In the middle of the market, a man with a shopping cart full of green coconuts hacks off their tops, seemingly carelessly but always precisely, and inserts a straw into the cavity, passing them off to customers waving dollar bills. It’s a spectacle but no one cheers.
Upon arriving, I wandered for half an hour and I still felt like I hadn’t seen it all. It’s not a big area, but food stands with piles of fruit and stacks of dulce de leche are all packed together; it’s overwhelming like a multi-page restaurant menu, but all the dishes are right in front of you, only a few dollars and minutes away. Surrounded by foods I didn’t recognize and a language I don’t speak, I could do nothing but follow my instincts.
Before deciding on what I wanted to eat, I went up to the central juice stand and went for mamey, the custardy, starchy fruit that produces a red-orange nectar that tastes like a cross between sweet potato and papaya. It was musty, thick, and unlike any juice I’d ever known, but one of the best I'd ever had.
And after spending much time deliberating what food I wanted, at the Pescado y Mariscos stand, I ordered seafood paella and plátanos, and the woman behind the counter piled scoop after scoop into a styrofoam box, which bent under the weight. The total: $8, and enough food to stretch for two or three meals.
As I dug into the paella, my fork hit various concealed bits of seafood: clams, shrimp, half a whole fish, squid. The experience was reminiscent of digging through a sandbox and finding a shovel, except the shovel was a pink filet of salmon.
Welcome to Asian Food Adventures, where Dan Holzman, chef-owner of The Meatball Shop, and Matt Rodbard, author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, dive into the foods they love so much in search of higher meaning, expert advice, and a great bowl of noodles. Or all three.
Despite the sometimes forced hipster vibe, with German tourists consulting their pocket fremdenführer for the closest Girls shooting location, Bushwick, Brooklyn now boasts enough solid Eastern options that it’s worth the $2.50 Metrocard swipe to do some noodle hopping. There’s a troika of hip Vietnamese canteens (Bunker, Mama Pho, Lucy’s) an Asian sandwich shop (Little Mo), legit sushi (Momo Sushi Shack) and ramen (Shinobi) all within a short walk. And there is an okonomiyaki restaurant, Okiway—a single-dish specialist that opened last summer across from King Noodle that taps into the neighborhood’s eating zeitgeist.
Dan knows his way around okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake not unlike the Korean pajeon. There’s a wallop of flavors and concepts going on: meat, seafood, pancake batter, veggies, mayonnaise and the requisite sweet and tangy, umami-rich okonomiyaki sauce. (If you can’t find it bottled then you can always make it by mixing three tablespoons of ketchup with a tablespoon each of Worcestershire and soy sauce). The classic dish is made by grilling all of the additions on a teppan griddle, then pouring a batter of wheat flour, dashi and eggs over the top, then streaking it with mayo, the sauce and bonito flakes.
Okonomiyaki is potentially challenging when sober (the gross/but you totally know what we mean term “gut bomb” comes to mind), yet the concept is easily digested after a few too many beers. The version in Bushwick is a solid rendition, worthy of a sake-fueled expedition, but it didn’t quell our hunger. So we stepped across the street to King Noodle for a second late-night feast.
When Nick Subic opened his stonerific noodle shop on a sketchy stretch of Bushwick, Brooklyn in the summer of 2013—there was a bowl of Korean-style carbonara powdered with Doritos dust—he did so to serve the restaurant industry workers the neighborhood’s cheap rents and late-night theatrics attracted. Like the neighboring restaurant Roberta’s, where Subic worked as a line cook before breaking out as his own with Justin Warner at Do or Dine, King Noodle was loud, nearly always short-staffed, and quick to serve you that extra cold beverage you might not need. The Asian-fusion comfort grub, in the beginning at least, was almost secondary.
But over time, as Subic found his voice and steered the menu towards Southeast Asia—most recently Singapore and Malaysia with the help of his sous chef Shannon Ryan—it was spicy bowls of laksa that everybody was buzzed on. In retrospect, King Noodle was a bit of pioneer in Bushwick, considering today it’s a hub for restaurants serving the style of food Dan and Matt love to eat and write about—hearty, soulful and best paired with an ice cold beer.
Subic is not just chef and owner at the restaurant, but oftentimes the bartender and front-of-house guy. “My whole inspiration for this is the Japanese izakaya,” he says, comparing King to a sports bar. “But the sports, in this case, is the food.”
We sit down and basically order the menu. Wok-fired morning glory leaves, green curry noodles and the nasi lemak, a Malay coconut rice dish with curried lamb and pickles. But it’s bowl of nuts that we keep going back to. “The idea was to come up with a crunchy, nutty thing, that would go along with anything, including all the drinks,” says the chef.
Mission accomplished. The nuts, peanuts and cashews in this case but interchangeable, are a savory, fishy and bright reminder of a day Matt spent at a beachside restaurant on the island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam. Subic’s recipe, which we’ve adapted here, is kind of the ultimate Southeast Asian bar snack, and a fixture on most King Noodle tables. And they’re a cinch to make at home.
Five years ago, this part of the neighborhood was more factories and street walkers than good eating. Now, with the flavors of Asia pulsing through it, it’s easy to remember why we live in the greatest city in the world. Especially for adventures in Asian food.
Get the recipe for King Noodle's Spicy Cashew-Peanut Bar Mix »
North of Nefta, Tunisia — November 9, 2015
After two days of driving in the desert, my friend and I pulled off a sandy, unpaved road near Nefta, a small town in western Tunisia. There, rising above the dunes, was an otherworldly-looking village that I had come here expressly to see. For lifelong Star Wars fans like me, the area around Nefta is something of a mecca; George Lucas filmed scenes of the planet Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's childhood home, in its surrounding dunes and salt flats. Many of the sets from the original movie still stand, the oldest dating to 1976. Unsure of what I might find, I poked my head into one of the buildings. Inside, to my surprise, Bedouin men sat stoking a small fire.
They were preparing a meal for themselves and invited us curious travelers inside to partake. The man doing the cooking, Salem Ben Said, buried a flat piece of dough in the ground before covering it with a small pile of burning sticks. After five minutes, he pushed the fire to the side, using it to heat a pot of tea. He unearthed the bread, dusted off the clay, and handed us a piece. It had a delicate, crisp crust with a toasty flavor from the smoke, while the tea was a fine counterpoint, dark and sweet.
Talking to the men we learned that they used to make a killing here selling cheap jewelry and other wares to tourists back in the early Star Wars days—Said told me they once saw hundreds of visitors every week. Now they're lucky to get just a few hardcore pilgrims. But each night, they still set up camp in these old Tatooine hideaways to stake out their spots for the morning, hoping the Star Wars fans will return in force.
It’s barely dinnertime in Tetuán, a sleepy barrio in northern Madrid, but the line for Al-Aga’s famous kebabs is spilling out onto the sidewalk. Inside this unassuming pocket restaurant, Labib works his mishwah, an Arab-style charcoal grill, coaxing a line of meat on skewers to exquisite tenderness over open flame before stuffing them into pita. “Just like in Syria,” the 54 year-old owner beams and tells me through an interpreter, as he shuffles out from the kitchen with plateful after plateful of parsley-flecked, pomegranate-scented kebabs.
A bite of any dish from Al-Aga’s menu would suggest that cooking is Labib’s lifelong calling— not a backup plan cobbled together out of necessity. Labib (he declined to provide his last name) and his family are refugees, and as with many Syrians fleeing the civil war, his last half-decade has been a riches-to-rags battle against poverty, homelessness, and governmental red tape. When his family finally arrived in Spain—following months of upheaval that took them from Homs to Damascus, Beirut, and Frankfurt—they had to make hard adjustments. “For our first year [in Madrid], our family of six shared a single bedroom,” he said, shaking his head.
He’d spent his life’s savings on keeping his family out of harm’s way, and when those ran out, they ran on fumes. How could a middle-aged businessman with broken Spanish ever find a job in Madrid? One day it dawned on him: Drawing from his childhood memories, personal recipes, and the culinary knowhow of his wife, he could carve out a niche for himself by opening a Middle Eastern restaurant that did things right. With newfound determination to succeed, he opened Al-Aga a few months later.
Unlike cooks at most of Madrid’s kebab houses, Labib doesn’t cut corners. He pickles his own vegetables and makes his sauces from scratch. Throwing a few kibbeh mishwiyyeh onto the grill, he notes with pride that his recipe for these flame-licked bulgur patties taste just like his grandmother’s. “It took a lot of trial and error,” he says, to get the proportions of garlicky lamb, pine nuts, and Aleppo pepper just right for the filling. Most kibbeh we see are fried, with a coat of bulgur wrapped around ground meat. But one bite of Labib’s spicy, smoky version had me converted to the barbecued strain common to Homs in western Syria.
On another afternoon, I found Labib elbow-deep in the dough used to make sfiha. These inhalable little flatbreads, spread with ground beef and mint and finished with a dribble of pomegranate syrup, are best eaten folded up and dunked in garlic-labneh sauce. They’re like the soft-taco cousin of Turkish lahmacun, and at a Euro apiece, optimal use for pocket change.
Madrileños don’t come to Al-Aga for the ambiance, which might best be described as an eat-in grocery, but for the food, which is remarkably involved even before you consider the low prices. But in a city where fast-food kebab chains dominate Middle Eastern dining and the bar is set so low, why would Labib go to the trouble of, say, making roasted pepper paste from scratch?
The answer seems to lie in his exile. “A lot of Muslim refugees are happy here in Spain,” he says. “It’s modern, it’s Western. But I don’t care about those things. I miss my country.” With Homs now a bombed-out skeleton of its former self, he may never return to the once-vibrant city where he was born, raised a family, and owned a business. What he does have is his heritage, which he honors with every kebab he sets over the flame.
The Spanish government may have granted asylum to Labib and his family, but his struggle is far from over. He hasn’t taken a day off in over a year. There are loans and taxes to pay, and it remains to be seen whether Al-Aga will ever be profitable.
Yet one thing is certain: Labib has a devoted following of regular customers rallying around him. One of them is Jalal Maher, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee and recent Madrid transplant who comes in often for the grilled kibbeh. “It’s just the smell of this place,” he sighs. “It reminds me of my country, of the streets, of my grandmother’s cooking. I feel good when I eat these dishes— like for a moment, I’m home.”
Calle Villaamil, 52
28039 Madrid, Spain
+34 910 703 115
In the public eye, New York takes all the credit for classics like pizza, hot dogs, and old school Italian sandwiches. But the sad truth is that it’s harder and harder to find great instances of those icons these days. Most of the city’s classic Italian sandwich shops are rare relics of an older time and largely relegated to the outer boroughs, or you’re stuck with fetishized cheffy heroes for $15 apiece.
I’m a Philadelphia area native, and I’ve always taken pride in the fact that you can find a legit Italian sub (or as we call it, a hoagie) every few blocks in nearly every neighborhood. But not too long ago I stumbled across the first serious threat I’ve seen to Philly’s Italian sandwich dominance: not in New York, but in North Jersey.
As with many iconic foods most associated with New York—even when those traditions are dying out there—the Italian hero thrives in Jersey. And Cosmo’s in Hackensack makes some of the best.
It’s a small, fairly nondescript storefront on a quiet street next to a dentist’s office, an Italian restaurant, and a couple of houses. You might miss it except for the line snaking out the door, populated by workers in various uniforms, cops, and folks who all look like extras from the Sopranos. That’s definitely a good sign for this kind of food—and to be fair, Cosmo’s is within a mile of at least a dozen Sopranos filming locations.
The storefront is little more than a deli counter, plus a couple shelves along the wall stocked with olive oil, pasta, and imported products. Provolone logs and prosciutto legs hang from the ceiling and fill the room with the sweet aroma of something cured.
Customers pack themselves tight into the line, then shunt off to the side to find a corner and wait until their order is ready. The room is dead quiet in the weird way of some legendary food establishments, the kinds that feel like churches to something ancient and profound. (Or maybe it’s just that people don’t want to get yelled at for ordering incorrectly.) Either way, the only noise that breaks the silence is the counter man yelling out: “Pick UP! Three Roast Beef and one Hot Sopra-Sahd!”
On my first visit to Cosmo’s, I was struck by how inexpensive—almost suspiciously so—the sandwiches were. $5.75 is just too cheap for a full-size prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich. Were these for half-orders? Or is the sign vintage? Something had to be wrong here.
It isn’t. Cosmo’s sandwiches are a little smaller than the average foot-long monsters you get elsewhere, but they’re perfect. You can finish one without passing out afterwards. And these are sandwich people who really, truly know what they’re doing. Ribbons of thin-sliced capicola layered beautifully by a guy with real sailor tattoos and an un-ironic mustache. Liberal helpings of homemade mozzarella, because that’s just the right way to do it. Condiments carefully applied so they don’t sog up the bread. And the bread’s excellent, too: fat Italian loaves with the ends cut off, super crusty (but not too hard), burnished dark on the outside and light and soft on the inside.
These are the sandwiches people cry about when the move out west, heroes with working-class pedigrees but high-powered flavor. They’re the sandwiches that so-called gourmet shops across the country try and hopelessly fail to replicate, with their too-tough bread and over-complicated fillings and double-digit price tags.
The magic comes down to precision. These sandwiches don’t fall apart in your hands, and every ingredient has an exact purpose, whether you’re getting a minimalist hero with three perfect elements or a more complicated one topped with a fluff of shredded iceberg lettuce.
The menu is more a set of suggestions than anything else. After I ordered a Number Two, the counter guy started at me blankly. “Which one? The prosciutto? You want mozzarella or provolone?” No matter what you order, you’ll wind up going through every sandwich ingredient-by-ingredient as the sandwich-makers put it together. That’s a good thing: It gives you the all-important opportunity to tweak everything to your own tastes, with extra mozz, hot peppers, seasoned oil—whatever you need.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start, go with the Number One, an Italian combo with mixed meats, sweet or hot peppers, fresh mozzarella, and/or sharp provolone. Or really any sandwich that features their creamy homemade mozzarella, applied liberally in multiple layers. It’s so good it makes even a barebones tomato-mozz hero taste like one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, but it’s amazing on a special of hot roast beef (roasted at the shop of course) dripping with gravy—just be sure to get there on a Wednesday, the only day they make it.
After ordering almost the entire menu, I took a few bites of my first sandwich and let out a stream of curses. I looked nervously at my fellow Philadelphians, and they looked back at me. We were all scared to admit just how good these North Jersey hoagies could be.
Cosmo's Italian Salumeria
705 Main Street, Hackensack, NJ 07601
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
It calls to mind unreal places: Tolkien's Middle Earth, innumerable iterations of fairyland. It is unlike anywhere I've ever seen—and, more to the point, unlike any place I've ever felt. I know nowhere quite so lushly green, so exquisitely gentle here, and craggily forbidding there. It had been more than a decade since I'd visited England's Lake District, just south of the Scottish border, and even to imagine being back there without my husband, Frank, who died in 2010 of a rare form of cancer, was for a long time not possible. But last year, I felt ready.
If England were a play, the climate would be a main character. Not as predictable as its reputation, it is capricious, and its machinations frequently drive the plot. The Monday afternoon I alit from the train in the Lake District village of Oxenholme, I couldn't believe my good fortune: The sun shone so brightly that it made me laugh in happy disbelief.
From Oxenholme, I took a short train ride to Windermere and the Old Dungeon Ghyll—the magnificently grimly named inn in the Great Langdale valley where I'd spend that night, doubtful I'd get such heavenly sunshine again during my stay in the district. This made me overzealous, determined to walk as much as possible that afternoon. I checked in—it's a cheerful place, not at all so dank and dreary as the “dungeon” in its name—threw my big backpack on the bed, loaded up a smaller one, grabbed my walking stick, and headed out through the fells. Great Langdale would be the most remote of the places I'd stay during the week, with some of the most rugged and picturesque terrain. More than two centuries later, William Wordsworth's description of it remains spot-on: “Next comes Great Langdale, a Vale which should on no account be missed by him who has a true enjoyment of grand separate Forms composing a sublime Unity, austere but reconciled and rendered attractive to the affections by the deep serenity that is spread over everything.”
Frank and I met as grad students studying English literature. I was a Romanticism hard-liner: Ever since a William Blake seminar in college, English Romantic poetry was to me something like the literary equivalent of The Clash—the only literature that mattered. Frank was on the fence, splitting his allegiance between Modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and the Romantics, especially Wordsworth. I campaigned to bring him out of the shadows: Modernists were joyless, neurotic, sexless fascists, I argued, as only a twenty-something committed to the infallibility of her opinions can. The Romantics, on the other hand, were wild and free and visionary, suffused by the spirit of revolution that animated their era. Frank finished his PhD. I did not. Still, my lobbying was so successful that we spent part of our honeymoon in that great green heartland of English Romanticism, the Lake District.
At the time, one did not go to the Lakes to eat. Instead, what one did in the district was walk, and we walked each day until we could walk no more—on the historic coffin trail, used long ago to bring the dead from the district's villages for burial at Saint Oswald's, between Grasmere and Ambleside, above Rydal Water, passing right by Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's former home. Down quiet lanes. Up steep hills. Around the lake that gives Grasmere its name. Our reward each evening was a simple, filling meal at one or another local pub—a roast with Yorkshire pudding one night, fish and chips the next—and plenty of pints of English ale.
A few years later, when we returned to the Lake District for a week, we shared a cottage outside Grasmere with friends. It had a large, well-equipped kitchen in which we roasted local Herdwick lamb and potatoes, made big salads, and ate very well while the formidable rains of Northern England percussed the roof and “our” herd of Herdwicks—they came with the cottage—bleated in the yard.
After an absence of many years, neither the district's beauty, nor the powerful emotions it elicits, had changed. But the food had. Now, the Lake District is for many visitors as much a destination for fine dining as it is for hiking and literary pilgrimage. Pride in local ingredients and attention to detail is evident, at both cozy old pubs and destination restaurants. And in the Lake District, it is advisable—I would say even essential—to experience both, to encounter the earthy and the ethereal, the cultivated and the just-as-it-is.
I mean it in the best possible way when I say that Hikers Bar—the pub at Old Dungeon Ghyll in the Great Langdale valley—smelled like wet dogs and hops. There seemed to be nearly as many dogs as there were people in the bare-bones room—a few rickety wooden tables, some timeworn chairs and benches, a great old hearth in which no fire had been lit, its mantle strewn with books and maps. I asked John, the knowledgeable, friendly (if deadpan) barman, to recommend a good local ale. He pulled me a pint of Bowness Bay Brewing Company's Swan Blonde. This crisp, hoppy (but not astringent) beer went down easy. I limited myself to one. There were other ales to try, and it was early yet.
I also asked John to recommend something to eat, and without hesitating he pointed to a special on the menu: roasted lamb shoulder, with chips and peas. I took my pint to the terrace and waited for my dinner. The lamb had the strong, distinctive flavor I remembered from the Herdwick that Frank and I had roasted years earlier. The meat was tender, its crust brown and crackled. It came with enough dark, deeply lamby gravy to coat it—and, better still, to dip the chips in (I even sloshed my peas around in it). As the night grew colder, I repaired inside and drank a pint of Yates Cumbria bitter while I sat by myself listening to the din of other hikers and admiring their intrepid, knackered dogs.
My plan was to alternate pub nights with long, luxurious lunches at the district's eminent restaurants. Holbeck Ghyll is an imposing old hunting lodge set high above Lake Windermere, in park-like grounds with intoxicating views across the water. There is nothing like marching into such a refined place in one's hiking boots, with an overstuffed pack strapped to one's back, and a walking stick in hand. Tom, the maître d', showed me to a table in the nearly empty wood-paneled dining room. My fellow diners—a young Irish woman and an Australian woman I'd met in the lounge and a couple from London—and I couldn't resist talking to each other, even though it made us feel like disobedient schoolchildren.
As my lunch started with a small portion of squash bisque with Gruyère, Tom silently, expertly deployed a starched white napkin to dispatch some bees that had gathered menacingly by the high windows near my seat. The most impressive course was baby pig loin, its richness lightened by a vivid green onion oil and the herbaceous crunch of fried sage leaves, served with pork confit, a black pudding, and a pork terrine. It was a beautiful and memorable lunch, but its formality—and the memories of Frank summoned by that dish, of the pork he would chop into a terrine when he needed a break from his dissertation, of the fried sage leaves that he used to garnish his summer corn soup—made me feel my aloneness sharply. I wondered what he would have made of this place, and its cooking, and wondered how different my experience of all this would have been with him.
The Old Stamp House Restaurant in the bustling town of Ambleside is located in a building where Wordsworth had an office when he worked as a stamp distributor. Here, in its small, spare, cool subterranean rooms, I encountered food that tasted quintessentially English (even when classical French techniques were applied) and was exactingly regional, making use of ingredients farmed and grown right in the district and, in the case of seafood, just beyond its borders off the Cumbrian coast. The menu proclaimed its ethos: “Food Inspired by Cumbria,” it said, “Heritage, People, Landscape.” It's a family undertaking, the Old Stamp House. Ryan Blackburn was in the kitchen, his brother Craig, in the front of house. My lunch began with what I expected to be a homely morsel of black pudding—here, it glistened like a chocolate bonbon and was accompanied by a small, dense pool of reduced port. It was the finest black pudding I'd ever tasted: earthy, not too dry, not too moist, subtly but persuasively spiced. The lobster caught near Ravenglass (perhaps my favorite of all regional place names, the stuff of myth, or at least a Led Zeppelin song), was meltingly delicate, invigorated by zucchini and basil and sweet heirloom tomatoes. Braised pork cheek with queenies (tiny bay scallops) and purées of both artichoke and chestnut were elemental—as if earth and sea, fire and briny air, could be tasted in each bite—bordering on audacious.
Herdwick hogget—described to me as the meat of a sheep no younger than one year old and no older than two, between lamb and mutton—from Yew Tree Farm, once the property of Beatrix Potter, came cut in thick, tender pink slices, accompanied by a small pot of chanterelles and barley, suggestive of earth and woods. The word that kept coming to mind to describe my lunch was poetic, which felt hopelessly corny for a meal eaten just downstairs from Wordsworth's sometime office.
I spent that night in Hawkshead, a serene and picturesque village of whitewashed cottages and low stone buildings, a handful of fine pubs, and numerous trailheads. I had tea on my terrace at Walker Ground Manor, a bed and breakfast just five minutes' walk from the village. A small brook gurgled just beyond; behind it the deep, dark green of Grizedale Forest stretched. Between the village and Walker Ground was an entrance to a trail leading to Tarn Hows park, which Frank and I had once hiked together, and which had struck us as an apt symbol for the district as a whole. Regarded as one of its most stunning natural features, the relentlessly photographed Tarn Hows lake is not so natural as it seems: It has been touched and shaped by the human hands that merged smaller lakes into its larger whole. This is a trick the district often plays, this commingling of nature and artifice into something that feels like interdependence.
Freakishly, unaccountably, the weather had not yet failed me. The lake was still, the air nearly warm, the sky lit by blazing sunlight as a restored, steam-powered Victorian gondola ferried me to Brantwood, the onetime home of John Ruskin, the 19th-century artist, author, critic, social reformer, champion of painters including J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin pioneered ideas for which words hardly existed in his time—environmentalism, sustainability, and social justice—and his unusual and splendid home is built into the hills just across the lake from the village of Coniston. It's hard to describe this house, which began as a cottage typical of the district's vernacular architecture, but which Ruskin adapted and added to until the effect was nearly Italianate, with a few turrets almost in the Tudor fashion. It is entirely its own strange, singular place—not a mansion, not stuffy, not formal, only reflective of the deeply personal, discerning taste of its onetime owner and presiding spirit. The London-born, widely traveled Ruskin felt most at home in the Lake District. He was offered burial in Westminster Abbey, and declined it in favor of St. Andrew's churchyard in the center of Coniston village.
After visiting with him there, I sat outside the Black Bull Inn and ate an unfussy, satisfying dinner of crisp, fatty pork belly on a bed of roasted vegetables and drank a few pints of Coniston Brewing Company's famous Bluebird Bitter ale, spicy and tart and faintly floral. I thought I'd spend the evening in solitude, reading Ruskin and writing postcards and drinking, but the Black Bull is as popular with locals as it is with tourists, and pretty quickly my table filled up with Coniston characters: high school girls just after a run, a pub chef in his off-hours (his mother showed up, too), a waitress from another pub. I put the book and postcards away. They had plenty of friendly questions for me. “I'd give anything to live in New York,” one of the girls said with a big, dramatic sigh. I was tempted to offer her a trade.
L'Enclume is regarded as the best restaurant in all of the English north, and from the second I entered it, I fell in love. Bright and airy, with exposed timber beams and pale slate floors, it has a mix of rustic charm and modern refinement that imparts an enveloping sense of calm.
I opted for the six-course lunch rather than the seventeen, and each bite yielded exceptional pleasure. A plate of short-horn beef tartare was more than merely meaty: The surprise of charcoal oil, a flavor entirely unfamiliar to me until then, made the dish new. Every mouthful of guinea fowl with runner beans and beets delivered a multitude of textures—soft and crunchy, smooth and rough—and contrasting flavors, yet was ingeniously comforting. Most memorable of all was L'Enclume's salt-baked carrot swimming in a vivid carrot broth with a small, rich, pork-fatty dumpling at the center and a few savory slices of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms rounding it out. It was both beautiful to behold and astonishingly excellent to eat. Desserts, too, were both strong and subtle. One was an ice cream made with sweet cheese, its tanginess amplified by apricot and raspberry sauces applied to the plate like bold brushstrokes; a few edible flowers added to its painterly appeal.
I had planned to stay in the district one more night, but that was no longer possible. My lunch at L'Enclume had to be the last thing I tasted in the Lakes. The best food in the Lake District shares its most prominent and memorable traits with the Romantic poetry for which the area has been long celebrated. Even at its most sophisticated, it is tightly bound to the region's natural majesty; Im thinking here, especially, of that carrot at L'Enclume. Even at its most cultivated, a streak of wildness cannot wholly be subdued.
But there was still that one thing I had to do before getting on a train to London: I had not been back to Wordsworth's beloved Grasmere. He called Grasmere, located in the center of the district, “the loveliest spot that Man hath ever found,” and the poet lies buried in the small churchyard beside Saint Oswald's, a modest stone building where worshippers still convene on Sunday mornings. I could not leave the Lakes without revisiting his grave.
I wanted to thank him for writing, among other things, the poem that comforts me most, and which I reach for often. For introducing me to this sanctified corner of the world before I'd ever even stepped foot on it. I'd probably never have eaten lunch at L'Enclume were it not for Wordsworth—or fallen in love with Frank, with whom I'll always share the Lakes. I'll quietly recite this cherished portion of his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood—
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, or glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
—strap my pack on my back and head for the next train out.
Recipes From Wordsworth County
See the recipe for Roasted Guinea Hens with Spring Beets and Runner Beans »
See the recipe for Sweet Cheese Ice Cream with Apricots, Raspberries, and Honey Granola »
See the recipe for Huntsman Pies »
See the recipe for Full English Breakfast with Cumberland Sausage »
See the recipe for Crisp Pork Belly with Roasted Vegetables and Applesauce »
How to Eat the Lake District
The Black Bull Inn and Hotel
1 Yewdale Rd, Coniston
+44 1539 441 335
The Coniston Brewing Company
Coppermines Rd, Coniston
+44 1539 441 133
Holbeck Ghyll Country House Hotel
Holbeck Lane, Windermere
+44 1539 432 375
Cavendish St, Cartmel
+44 1539 536 362
The Old Dungeon Ghyll
Great Langdale, Ambleside
+44 1539 437 272
Old Stamp House Restaurant
Church St, Ambleside
+44 1539 432 775
The Queen's Head Inn
Main St, Hawkshead
+44 1539 436 271
The manager of the Knife & Fork Inn, a stately Atlantic City restaurant, was walking past the ladies’ restroom at the very moment I was strolling in. Ordinarily, that might be cause for embarrassment, or even arrest, but I had a perfect explanation: I desperately wanted to see the photograph of Mr. Peanut on the wall inside.
I explained to the manager that I was being intrepid, not indecent. A friend and I had spent a frustrating afternoon on a bitterly cold day, winds screaming in from the Atlantic Ocean, strolling the boardwalk in search of the Planters Peanuts shop I loved as a kid, the one where Mr. Peanut—a living, breathing, monacled, and somewhat creepy costumed character—hung out. When my friend saw the photograph of Mr. Peanut in the ladies’ restroom, she rushed out to give me the good news, and to stand guard while I went inside.
The manager was sympathetic. He explained to me that Mr. Peanut (and the shop) had long ago decamped for Ocean City, a seaside community about 10 miles south.
Not much remains of the Atlantic City I once adored—the fabled boardwalk has faded, and the somewhat moribund casinos are not much of a temptation. With the city’s past so much more alluring than its present, nostalgia is a thriving industry. That’s what brought me back to a city I adored as a child, a wistful adoration of the past, in this case a chance to dine for the first time ever at a restaurant I longed to try.
The Knife & Fork opened in 1912, which means I’d certainly had plenty of time to get there, starting in the 1950’s when my parents would drive to Atlantic City from Philadelphia for a day on the beach. I would stare out the back window of our Oldsmobile as we passed the restaurant, wondering why we never stopped in. I might have been the first adolescent ever to compile a bucket list, mine with a single entry, the Knife & Fork Inn.
Well-situated at the junction of Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, isolated from surrounding buildings, this gleaming white edifice was and remains a grand sight. To the youthful me it looked like a medieval castle, a hunting lodge, a perfect setting for a gathering of the Knights of the Round Table. It was one of the centerpieces of my childhood fantasies—remember, this was before Disneyland was built.
Over the decades I never lost interest in the Knife & Fork Inn, but it was only recently that an urge to dine there resurfaced. I began to worry that I had waited too long, that it might soon vanish, the fate these days of so many fine-dining establishments. I would have grieved had that been so, exactly as I felt about so many of the fabled Los Angeles restaurants I never found time to visit, such as Chasen’s or the Brown Derby.
I came to understand why my parents never took my sister and I there. They rarely went to fancy restaurants, and when they did, we stayed home. Even more of a deterrent back then was the dress policy, coat-and-tie, not part of our beach protocol. My mother was the arbiter of all things culinary in our family, and while confident about food, she was less sure of herself socially. I doubt she would have been comfortable in such an elaborate setting, although had she known it was run by a Jewish family, she might have felt differently. Back in those days, many of the fanciest Atlantic City establishments didn’t welcome Jews.
I called Anthony Kutschera, an expert on Atlantic City history, to ask him about the restaurant as he remembered it. He told me he dined there on a summer day decades ago when the air-conditioning wasn’t working well, so he took off his jacket. The owner, Mack Latz, came over and said, “Nothing doing.” My mother wouldn’t have liked that, would have lit into Mr. Latz. Mostly, we ate at Lou’s, in Ventnor, an informal, Jewish-style place. I never complained because Lou’s fulfilled my childhood culinary fantasies—it served knockwurst.
Today, the Knife & Fork Inn is owned by the same company that operates Dock’s Oyster House in Atlantic City, which is the sort of change of ownership that worries me. There are inherent perils in moving from benevolent private ownership to conceivably wicked corporate ownership.
I need not have been concerned. The restaurant has been refurbished and sparkles. Gone is the huge neon sign that loomed over the place in the fifties, reading Knife & Fork Inn Sea Food. I loved that. You can see how the restaurant used to look from a photograph just inside the front door. Like almost every Atlantic City establishment, the Knife & Fork Inn is festooned with photos of the city’s glorious past.
A friend and I visited twice on the same day, at happy hour and again at dinner. It was bliss both times. My only noteworthy disappointment was the wine list, which bore little relation to the more appealing one found online.
At happy hour, seated at a long, polished bar in soft, comfortable seats, we had barrel-aged Negronis, dollar oysters, and crisp lobster spring rolls. Strolling around, we watched the staff preparing for dinner service, which included polishing wine glasses etched with the Knife & Fork logo. We walked upstairs to the second-floor dining area, one of several, and realized we absolutely had to have our dinner there.
This is one of the loveliest spaces in any American restaurant. The modest-sized room is the sort you see in a museum, lifted intact from a palace in Europe and transported whole so visitors can stare at it from behind a velvet rope. The paneling gleams. The stained glass glows at sunset. The ceiling reminds me of Versailles.
The rolls were warm, the butter soft, and service from our waiter, Omar, perfect. When the lights flickered briefly, he quipped, “We’re about to make this meal a lot more romantic.” For an appetizer my friend had buttermilk fried quail, after I begged her not to, this being southern Jersey and not the real South. I was wrong. It was crunchy and juicy with a meatless gravy that nevertheless tasted like sausage gravy. I had a Caesar Salad, absolutely ordinary, in fact a little disappointing, but it was seven bucks and I know what my mother would have said: “For seven dollars, you can’t complain.”
My friend’s rack of lamb consisted of—wait for this—eight chops. I counted them. She ate every one. The sauce, a Vidalia onion-chipotle-bordelaise, was a little too new world, a little too Dock’s, for me. I had flounder, exquisitely sautéed, and heaped with more stuff than any sane man could consume—crabmeat, asparagus, tomatoes, and a mushroom beurre blanc. For dessert we shared banana cream pie with graham cracker crust (a little too thin) and a slice of bruléed banana (totally brilliant) on top.
This was no conventional meal. This was robber baron cuisine, a throwback to the days when men ate until they had to be helped out of their chairs. Or maybe it’s just how the good people of New Jersey like to eat. The nice people at the table next to us each ordered the complete Knife & Fork dinner: crab and corn chowder, Caesar Salad, Lobster Thermidor, and small filet mignon. They dispatched it all with ease. Then they looked at us, asked what we had for dessert, and when I raved about the banana cream pie, they each ordered a slice.
My mother would have loved the Knife & Fork Inn. She would have been smitten by Omar, dazzled by the dining room, and, uncommon for her, said not a negative word about the food. After all, it was hot, plentiful, and served expeditiously. I felt enormously satisfied by the experience, which was everything I dreamed it would be, although my mother would have had a few critical words for me. After all, I had committed a terrible sin by not cleaning my plate.
Is it rational to drive 15 miles out of my way for a convenience store sandwich? To insist on three or four visits, over the course of a weekend in New Jersey? To feel loyalty toward a convenience store at all? Yes, I would argue, when said convenience store is Wawa.
Of all the lower tiers of eating in America—movie theater concessions, mall food courts, economy class at 30,000 feet—convenience stores must rank right at the bottom. The stale steak taquitos, spinning greasily in their warmer. The soggy refrigerated sandwiches. The palpable layer of grime.
But Wawa—the finest gas-station-cum-sub-shop the Mid-Atlantic has ever known—is the antithesis of such soulless establishments. The chain of more than 600 convenience stores, about half of them with attached gas stations, began in Pennsylvania, but now extends across New Jersey and beyond, and it’s become as much a Jersey icon as a hometown Pennsylvania hero. The first Wawa Food Market opened in Folsom, Pennsylvania, in 1964, as an outlet to sell dairy from owner Grahame Wood’s farm. 50 years later, coffee and sandwiches are their stock in trade, plus more expected convenience store offerings: sodas, candy, potato chips. (So, so many kinds of potato chips.)
To say that Wawa has a cult following in the region would be an understatement. Wawa ranks up there with In-n-Out and Trader Joe’s for the zealotry of its fans. Philly Magazine cites Wawa devotees with the logo tattooed onto their skin; a group of women who visited every Wawa in the country; a couple who married at the Wawa where they first met.
I can’t match this level of fanaticism, though I have indeed mapped road trips around Wawa locations. In part, it’s nostalgia. I went to a New Jersey university where 3 a.m. Wawa stops were essentially mandatory, whether on nights of study or nights of play. And our Wawa had its own quirks. Karim, the late-night cashier, was always good for a chat; he’d ask for stories of the evening’s exploits and offer up opinions (often unsolicited) on everything from your sandwich order to the wisdom of going home with the person who just bought you that iced tea. From his particular perch as a sober observer, Karim once submitted an article to the campus paper, ranking his most-valued Wawa customers—“Most Charming Drunk,” “Most Friendly Female Duo,” and self-servingly, “Most Diehard Karim Fanatic.”
Wawa employees are encouraged to become part of their communities, according to the New York Times, to “impress regulars who will come in five times a week or more.” (Karim, I’d still venture, is a special case.) But as dramatically as Wawa exceeds expectations of convenience store service, it overperforms in the food department.
I defy you to find a better fast-food sandwich. The bread, made through a partnership with legendary Philadelphia bakery Amoroso, is par-baked, then finished hot in the store. The vegetables are surprisingly fresh and appealing. The cold cuts—well, they’re as good as one can fairly expect generic cold cuts to be. But the real genius lies in customization. At Wawa, one orders a sandwich by touchscreen, with page after page of choices indulging all my micromanaging tendencies. Options like “little mayo” and “extra mustard” are offered up freely and thus condoned. There’s none of the stigma of Starbucks, when a ten-modifier order earns you side-eye from fellow customers. No, Wawa is validating. “Be as particular as you want,” it entreats. “We’ll make the sandwich your way.”
Other Wawa fans profess allegiance to the coffee, or the breakfast sandwich “Sizzli,” or the seasonal turkey-stuffing-cranberry “Gobbler.” I personally adore the hot pretzels in the warming tray by the cash register—the sweet cream cheese pretzels, in particular. When at that perfect temperature, right out from under the warming light, the crust is crackly, the pretzel just doughy enough, a molten core of sugared-up cream cheese, like a liquid cheesecake filling, oozing out on first bite. A primal, straight-to-the-id pleasure.
And while there’s no telling what you’ll find at a standard convenience store—soda and cigarettes are about the only guaranteesat any Wawa, your options seem limitless. Whole rows of potato chips, in flavors and brands you didn’t know existed. An entire wall of sodas. Coffee, and vanilla coffee, and hazelnut coffee, and dozens more. A Wawa is a place of order and abundance.
In interviewing Wawa die-hards, the Times cited fans who proclaimed particular devotion to “their” Wawa, in a way you can’t imagine others anointing “their” 7-11 or “their” Subway. It’s sensible enough that Wawa produces regulars; good sandwiches and good coffee together fulfill many of life’s needs. And my own Wawa, which students dubbed “the ‘Wa,” certainly holds a place in my heart. (I would still recognize Karim, ten years later.)
But as I ventured out to other Wawas over the years, I was delighted to see echoes of my own store elsewhere. Every Wawa has those walls of soda and coffee, not just the ones that cater to caffeine-dependent students. Every Wawa has individually wrapped Reese’s Cups by the cash register, just the right size for an impulse buy. Every Wawa lets you order sandwiches by glorious touchscreen. The shops have personality, but the chain has personality, too, distinctive in everything from the layout to the lingo. Wawas have the soul of a small-town store, but the consistency of a successful chain.
Am I doing Wawa’s bidding in saying so, manipulated by corporate overlords who’ve engineered my entire experience to seem familiar and comforting? Maybe. Probably! But that doesn’t make the sentiment any less real. It may be Wawa Kool-Aid that I’m drinking, but if I can keep finding such joy in a friendly convenience store sandwich chain—refill my cup, please.
When people think of hot dogs, they usually think of places like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and New England. But true hardcore hot dog aficionados know that New Jersey is the center of the hot dog universe. There you’ll find a richer and more distinct hot dog culture than anywhere else, one informed by proximity to Coney Island (the birthplace of the American hot dog), itinerant pushcart workers who’ve retired from the streets of Manhattan, and a whole set of homegrown hot dog preparations unique to the state. Hot dogs are more than food in New Jersey; they’re a whole cuisine.
That means New York-style pushcart dogs, steamed and topped with sauerkraut. Deep fried dogs cooked until the skins rip open. Dogs folded into pizza dough pockets and smothered with fried peppers and potatoes. The options for the hungry hot dog lover are endless: New York-style spicy all-beef blends stuffed in natural casings, for one, or milder beef-and-pork mixtures specifically designed to withstand a deep fryer. Some hot dog preservationists have even rescued obscure frankfurter recipes from closing meat plants for the holdout customers that still demand a specific style of long-lost dog.
These are longstanding traditions; some of Jersey’s most celebrated hot dog styles are almost a century old. And in recent years, more and more food writers have takennotice of all the Garden State’s hot dog culture has to offer. But New Jersey still doesn’t get the recognition of, say, New York or Chicago, which is especially surprising considering how much these native traditions still thrive today.
Meet the Expert
I live close to Jersey and have been sampling the state’s offerings for years, but for this project I also enlisted the help of veteran New Jersey hot dog authority John Fox to navigate the complicated world of secret hot dog recipes, micro-regional chili styles, dishonest proprietors, and hot dog etymology.
If you’ve ever read anything about New Jersey hot dogs, you’ve probably heard of Fox, and even if you haven’t, most New Jersey hot dog knowledge leads back to him somehow. He’s been a consultant for countless hot dog articles, books, and television programs for everyone from the Food Network to the New York Times going back several decades.
John is also the co-founder (with Erwin Benz) of the Annual New Jersey Hot Dog Tour, now in its 13th year, which is one of best ways to sample some of Jersey’s finest dogs. It consists of two buses, over 100 eager hot doggers, and stops at seven different notable Jersey hot dog joints, with Fox in the front of the bus on a microphone detailing the history, technique, and culinary details of each stop. Every year he and Benz add new places to the tour, among with a few favorites, making sure to show off a nice mix of styles. It’s the ultimate hot dog experience.
Jersey hot dog makers are endlessly creative with how they cook, top, and serve their dogs, but you can lump them into seven broad regional categories. Here’s your guide to the full range of Jersey hot dog styles, with recommendations on where to get the best of the genre from Fox and me.
Italian Hot Dog
Originating at Jimmy Buff’s in the 1930’s—which is still around making some of the best—there’s nothing like the New Jersey Italian hot dog anywhere else in the world. The traditional version, made with half- or quarter-loaves of “pizza bread” from local bakeries (big wheels of soft Italian bread, not unlike muffaletta loaves with holes in the middle) is only really found in Newark and the surrounding area. The best hot dog spots also use a local-to-Newark Best Provisions brand all-beef dog, skinless so it can survive a trip through the deep fryer before getting jammed into the bread like shawarma and topped with deep fried peppers, onions, and crispy medallions of potato.
It’s also one of the few times in New Jersey where ketchup is an acceptable topping, although purists keep it off to the side solely for dipping the potatoes. If the sandwich sounds a little bit freakish, well, it is, but the myriad flavors and textures are deceptively balanced, and they just work for the best, most unique hot dog version of sausage & peppers you will ever eat.
Where to Get It
Tommy’s Italian Sausage
900 2nd Avenue, Elizabeth NJ
60 Washington Street, West Orange NJ
Charlie’s Italian Hot Dogs
18 South Michigan Street, Kenilworth NJ
This is the closest thing in New Jersey that you’ll get to the classic New York City street dog. Found at carts, trucks, and walk-up storefronts, pushcart-style dogs, also affectionately known as dirty water dogs, are almost exclusively made with Sabrett natural casing all-beef dogs, spicier and more garlicky than most on this list, in part to keep flavorful as the dogs linger in their hot water bath. Standard issue toppings include sauerkraut and onion sauce, a classic New York topping sweetened with tomato. Some of the storefront shops will also serve these dogs either cooked entirely or finished on a flat grill, adding an extra crunch to the already snappy dog.
Where to Get It
Dee’s Hut (Truck)
Near Lincoln Park; Faitoute Avenue, Roselle Park NJ
Randy the Hotdog Guy (Cart)
303 Long Avenue, Hillside NJ
Jerry’s Famous Frankfurters
906 2nd Avenue, Elizabeth, NJ
Easton-Style Hot Dog
This is a funny, unique hot dog style that’s sort of hybrid between Jersey’s deep fried dogs and Pennsylvania brands, served in an almost quasi-Chicago fashion. Popular in Easton, PA and bleeding across the Delaware to Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Easton-style or Western New Jersey-style hot dogs start with Berks or Kunzler brand beef-and-pork skinless dogs, shallow fried in half an inch or so of oil, and topped “all the way” with yellow mustard, pickle spears, and diced fresh onion, often wrapped in wax paper to sort of steam the bun and meld the flavors together.
One of the more unique riffs on the Easton-style dog was formerly served at Charlie’s Pool Room in Alpha, NJ; there they added their grandmother’s secret Hungarian onion sauce and sliced bell peppers to the standard Easton hot dog base, along with an outsider-art-esque museum of semi-religious hot dog drawings and paraphernalia. (Unfortunately Charlie’s went out of business.) According to Fox, the two Jimmy’s on opposite sides of the river are decent; they’re run by members of the same family and are apparently now hot dog rivals. With the legendary Charlie’s Pool Room gone, I would probably recommend Toby’s Cup as the place to get this style; Toby’s is a wacky little neon blue hut on the side of the road that fits maybe four customers at time and cranks out some seriously delicious fried dogs.
Where to Get It
857 Memorial Parkway, Phillipsburg, NJ
Jimmy’s Hot Dogs
2555 Nazareth Road, Easton, PA
Jimmy’s Doggie Stand
7 Union Square, Phillipsburg, NJ
Some of the other styles here can be made with jumbo-sized hot dogs, but jumbo dogs are also a New Jersey style unto themselves, with certain hot dog joints, usually those near the beach, specializing in massive footlongs.
John Fox terms this Boardwalk-style, popularized by well-known Jersey Shore spots like Max’s or The Windmill. Windmill and other spots use jumbo Sabrett’s franks, but Max’s is legendary for its use of the quarter-pound Shickhaus dog, an old recipe dating back to a defunct meat packing company, now revived and made specially by an outside company for the New Jersey market. You’ll find these jumbo dogs char-grilled, griddled on a flattop, and deep fried, but they’re always served in too-small buns with myriad toppings.
Another legendary jumbo Jersey dog was once found at Syd’s in Union, NJ—an all-beef, char-grilled, 3.2-ounce frankfurter. It was a little smaller than the quarter-pounders at Max’s or Windmill, but spicier and bolder in flavor, considered by some to be the finest hot dog New Jersey has ever seen. Syd’s restaurant is long gone, but you can purchase the Syd’s recipe dogs at Best Provisions in Newark, and they really are incredible. Hot dog shops around the state will offer them from time to time, although nobody seems to have matched the glory of the long lost Syd’s.
Where to Get It
Max’s Hot Dogs
25 Matilda Terrace, Long Branch, NJ
Windmill Hot Dogs
Various locations in Monmouth County, NJ
Best Provisions (Syd’s Dog)
144 Avon Avenue, Newark, NJ
Texas Weiner (the preferred spelling in Jersey), Texas Hot, and Texas Hot Dog are all terms you may see associated with hot dogs in old-school joints across the country, a sort of regional misnomer branding scheme originating with Greek hot dog entrepreneurs in the early 1900’s. By many accounts the “Texas” weiner started in North Jersey, specifically in Paterson in the ‘30s, at a stand in front of a hotel run by a man named John Paterliss.
Regardless of background, the signature of the Jersey-style Texas Weiner is a natural casing dog, griddled or deep fried until crisp, and topped with Greek-style “chili” that’s more sweet than spicy thanks to ingredients like allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Mustard and chopped onions are standard (but optional) garnishes.
In North Jersey you’ll typically find Texas weiners deep fried, made with a Thumann’s brand mild beef-and-pork dog, and topped with a thinner sauce at small stand-alone hot dog joints. These are what Fox calls the Paterson style.
Down in Central Jersey, the dogs are usually griddled rather than fried, made almost exclusively made with Grote & Weigel dogs manufactured in Connecticut (but manufactured specifically for the Jersey market), and topped with a much thicker chili sauce. The Central Jersey Texas weiner is often found in sit-down restaurants that are more like diners than stands, alongside a full menu of jersey cuisine.
I prefer the northern style, and Libby’s—possibly the oldest still-standing Jersey Texas Wiener joint, where the dogs are served with gravy fries and frosted mugs of beer—as a personal favorite.
Where to Get It: Paterson-Style
98 McBride Avenue, Paterson, NJ
1140 Goffle Road, Hawthorne, NJ
317 Union Boulevard, Totowa, NJ
Where to Get It: Central Jersey-Style
Texas Weiner I
100 Wachtung Avenue; Plainfield NJ
Manny’s Texas Weiner
2580 Springfield Avenue, Vauxhall, NJ
Red Tower I
500 Park Avenue, Plainfield NJ
One of the better-known styles of Jersey dogs, the Ripper is really just one of four levels of hot dog doneness (others include the Weller or Cremator) at the legendary Rutt’s Hut, but it’s become a catch-all term for deep fried hot dogs. Rutt’s (and many other deep fried dog joints in Jersey and elsewhere) start out with a Thumann’s brand beef-and-pork dog, specially made for deep frying with secret ingredients that both help the dog stand up to the deep fryer as well as “puff up” in a signature way. The frying is more than just a stunt; it really crisps up a casing like nothing else.
At Rutt’s, the dogs are most commonly topped with a refreshing homemade yellow secret relish that’s a great foil to the salty fried dogs, and it’s even better with a cold beer. The relish is rumored to contain everything from cabbage to cucumbers to mustard or pickles. Others swear by nearby Hiram’s as the real deal for fried hot dogs, although there the default topping is chili instead of relish. Then there’s Callahan’s, a local favorite third rival to Rutt’s and Hiram’s, closed for years but recently re-booted by family of the original owners. They have one of the best modern examples of hot dog branding and signage I’ve ever seen.
Where to Get It
1345 Palisade Avenue, Fort Lee, NJ
417 River Road, Clifton, NJ
10 Broad Street, Norwood, NJ
Wacky Topping Dog
Aside from the long-standing New Jersey styles, there’s always been a rotating collection of “wacky” hot dog joints that focus more on the toppings than the hot dogs themselves, ranging from more modern chef-driven foie gras “haute dogs” to “kitchen sink” dogs topped with everything from potato chips to pepperoni, mashed potatoes, and whipped cream.
I personally enjoy some of the more restrained cheffy dogs and the international variations, or just the fun of trying something ridiculous. But for purists like John Fox it’s somewhat of an affront to serious hot doggery—although he does note that both Destination Dogs in New Brunswick and Maui Dogs in Wildwood start with quality hot dogs (Newark’s Best Provisions at Destination, New York’s Hoffman’s at Maui).
These dogs might not change the way you think about hot dogs forever, like a Ripper or a real Italian Hot Dog might, but it can be a lot of fun to check out some of the more creative and modern hot dog variations—around once you’re educated yourself with the classics.
Where to Get It
Hot Dog Tommy’s
10 Jackson Street, Cape May, NJ
Maui’s Dog House
806 New Jersey Avenue, Wildwood, NJ
101 Paterson Street, New Brunswick, NJ
Hawk Krall is an artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine, whose work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, galleries, and restaurants all over the world. He focuses on editorial illustration, streetscapes, and pop-art style food paintings.
I don't order dry martinis anywhere except in Estoril. Usually, I like my gin wet. But sitting in a low antique chair at the wood-paneled Spy's Bar in the Hotel Palácio, nothing but a dry gin martini will do.
The echoing clatter of heels on marble drifts in from the hotel's double-height lobby, and there's never quite enough chatter to drown out the soft music. In daylight, the gleaming green and blue of the garden and pool blink through long windows into the dim bar, lined with elegantly worn satin upholstery, and smoky mirrors catch the light at night. When it rains, as it does in winter, you can stare out at the dappled pool with underwater lights changing colors for no one. Waiters in white jackets carry platters of hors d'oeuvres, tiny tea sandwiches and salmon rolls.
Sipping from my stemmed glass, I am joined by a long and hallowed line of dry gin martini drinkers. Located twenty-five minutes outside Lisbon, Estoril became fashionable in the 1930s for its grand hotels and casinos. Then, during World War II, neutral Portugal, which played both sides off of one another to ensure its own safety and profit, was flooded with foreigners staying for longer than just a summer vacation.
While Lisbon was the center of official operations, seaside Estoril teemed with royal families from Spain, Italy, and Bulgaria, as well as French aristocrats, wealthy traders, displaced Jews, and the spies surveilling them all. Many took rooms at the Palácio—Allied territory—or the Hotel Atlántico, favored by the Germans. The Spanish royal family remained in town until the & '70s.
My very first time at the Palácio, walking to the breakfast buffet at the end of a hallway took me nearly 20 minutes, because I kept stopping to look at the photos of visiting European royalty and guests from the '30s to the present that lined the walls: stiff skirts at debutante balls, tiaras and white dresses at weddings, Grace Kelly and members of the Spanish royal family—the Infanta Pilar, among other Bourbons. Later that evening, I chose my outfit with slightly more care. The next day, as I left for the beach, I swiped on some lipstick.
The Palácio, with its dark bar and bright lobby, copious marble, lived-in period furniture, and bellhops in tails, has the inherent theatricality of an old movie. Ian Fleming stayed here in May of 1941, when he met Serbian-born triple agent Dusko Popov, the ur-Bond playboy spy known as “Tricycle” for the women occupying both his arms. Here, Fleming conceived of his famed character (and perhaps his hero's idiosyncratic “shaken, not stirred” directive). In those years, the high floors of Estoril hotels—the Palácio, Atlántico, and Inglaterra—were booked solid by agents who gazed toward the ocean after nightfall to decipher code twinkling from offshore ships. When the Germans ordered the best champagne at Spy's Bar, the gin-swilling Allies knew a battle had been lost in Africa. Bartenders got the news before the papers printed it.
José Diogo Vieira, the Palácio's head concierge, was 18 years old when On Her Majesty's Secret Service filmed at the Palácio in 1969. In an early scene, he plays a bellboy with neatly combed hair who hands James Bond his room key. Vieira wasn't around when Popov and Fleming were in residence, but their routine was common knowledge, he says. They circulated—hotel room to hotel restaurant and back again, restaurant or room to bar, bar to casino, and back again—drinking cocktails as they gathered information and traded secrets along the way.
Vieira's hair is now white, but he parts it on the same side and stands with a similarly straight bearing. And summers at the Palácio still look more or less as they do in the film's opening scenes, still feel more or less how they did when Fleming and Popov operated. Shouts float up to balconies from the pool, and guests roam the beach, hotel, bar, and casino in little loops.
Which is exactly why I keep coming back. There's a comfort in the continuity, in being strong-armed by tradition. Before dinner, on that first trip, I sat on my balcony and looked out across the landscaped park at the darkening ocean, seeking out a recognizable pattern from the ships on the horizon.
Among the first things José Manuel Cima said to me when I met him two years ago was that I was wrong. I did not want to order the grilled squid. I wanted to order the fresh grouper. Cima, ever the kind gentleman, has been running Cimas for 50-odd years now, and has a sense for these things. The second time we meet, when I return to Estoril with the express purpose of indulging in my love of history and tracking down spy haunts, is much the same: I like fish best? I want something traditional? In that case, I'm having the bass with clams.
Of course, he's correct, just as he was the last time. The bass emerges fleshy and with a surprisingly light shallot cream sauce, the plate dotted with shell-on clams. Cima knows these recipes well: They're his mother's. His parents took over Cimas—then called English Bar—from a Scottish spy in the early '50s. Her Majesty's agent Horace Bass had opened the pub in 1941 in a faux-Tudor guesthouse next to Estoril's old casino, and it acquired its name equally for its dark wood rooms as for the Allied spies who lurked within. Its signage appears perpetually caught between the two names—Cimas from the street, English Bar in cursive on the crest, Cimas-English Bar on the menus. As I finish my bass and listen to the surf crashing outside, I imagine slouch-shouldered spies trading secrets over strong drinks.
That I have never been steered wrong by the bossiness of my elders—that following tradition doesn't feel like play-acting at nostalgia—creates, for me, a sense of relaxation and routine. I know, in Estoril, that I will drink the same cocktails in the same places where spies and royals drank them 70 years ago. I'll read a novel published more than 50 years ago by the pool or garden, wish I'd brought dressier clothes, and eat crab legs and sardine heads with my hands. I will order what Cima tells me to order and go where Vieira directs me. During the summer, I will spend afternoons on a beach where German women spoke with Swiss accents in hopes of seducing Allied officers. And when I want ice cream, I will walk to Santini, purveyor of flavorful ices since 1949.
The present encroaches: The small casino next to Cimas was torn down, and the large casino in which Fleming spent his time, constructed in 1931 and expanded in the 1960s, was sold to a Chinese gambling conglomerate 30 or so years ago; the new owners “improved” its façade with mirrors and thousands of blaring lightbulbs. Last year, a monolithic gray hulk of a modern Intercontinental replaced the Hotel Atlántico. And at Spy's Bar, a separate gin menu now lists 22 varieties besides Gordon's, a nod to the craze for gin and tonics that has swept Spain and Portugal.
But though I may ask for my dry martini prepared with a flowery French gin, I will drink it in the same dim seat where the Count of Barcelona drank his daily dry martini for 20 years when he was in town. I'll head to dinner at Cimas, where, every day, Cima and his daughter Sara keep a close eye on the recipes from the past, making sure they remain relevant and fresh. There's little fear Estoril will change too quickly: Her young sons, Sara assures me, already know how to pick the best fish from the market.
See the recipe for Braised Bass and Clams in White Wine and Cream »
“The thing you have to know about Portuguese food is…” my father begins, and then launches into a monologue. We’re headed to the Ironbound district of Newark, New Jersey so that we can share a longstanding Portuguese tradition—the three-hour lunch—which he and his brothers have nobly mastered. But first things first.
The Ironbound district is so-called because railroad tracks flank the area on three sides, and a railroad yard closes it in on the fourth. Between these borders, “Little Portugal” has flourished since the late 1950s, when the largest waves of immigration to the area began. Nestled side by side are single-family homes, bakeries fragrant with sweet breads and custard-filled pastries, and cafes where customers stand at the bar at first light with espressos in hand. Grocery stores supply imported meat, cheese, and sweets, and on Sundays after church the streets ring with a cacophony of Portuguese and English, the two often blending mid-sentence.
Many restaurants in the Ironbound combine traditional Portuguese dishes with those of Brazil or Spain so that their menus attract the largest audience possible. But we’re headed to Taste of Portugal on Delancey Street, where the food is solely continental Portuguese. Other than my feminine presence—jokingly affirmed as only acceptable because I’m footing the bill—there’s nothing unique about this lunch. Which is why it will be so special.
Growing up in a Portuguese household, food and family were intricately linked. For me, being Portuguese meant being part of a tightly-knit family, having strong faith, working more than is healthy, and doing the best you can with whatever life hands you. Our food reflects that. We cook humble ingredients to nourish family and friends, and time together centers around massive feasts of these simple dishes, when we take take over the private room every Portuguese restaurant has nestled in the back, or stretch table after table through our homes. Portuguese culture—and Portuguese food—is about family, not fancy.
At the restaurant, we meet my father’s two brothers, my tios (uncles) Celso, the patriarch of the family, and Octavio. We immediately order wine and rip into squishy Portuguese rolls, their slightly crisp and floured crusts opening up to chewy insides that we slather with butter. I take in the scene. I see the bar next door is packed with locals in for a quick lunch. At a large corner table in the dining room, a family lingers, elbows-deep in seafood and glasses half full of wine as their laughter wafts over.
The décor is a variation on the theme of all Portuguese restaurants: sparse, neutral tones highlighted with the red of a chair or the deep copper of traditional Portuguese serving dishes. Wine glasses, plates, tableware; they’re all utilitarian. There’s warmth in Portuguese restaurants, but not from calculated design; it all comes from the food, and the people who share it.
Which my father begins to explain again now that we’re seated (Portuguese people in my experience like to tell the same story over and over, despite whether or not you’ve already been treated to the show before). “A Portuguese restaurant is family-run and family-managed,” he says. “It goes down from one generation to the next generation, and the food that’s served is the food that the particularly family cooks. There are no recipes for the dishes—every family and every chef just cooks slightly uniquely. That’s what makes one Portuguese restaurant different from another.”
You only truly comprehend this by eating around, as I have at the hundreds of post-First Communion lunches, wedding engagement brunches, baby showers, soccer match viewings, and random celebrations hosted by my family over the decades. Go to any traditional Portuguese restaurant and you’ll find the same staple dishes. There’s caldo verde—potato soup emulsified with peppery Portuguese olive oil, laced with shredded kale or collard greens, and studded with slices of chouriço or linguiça, depending on the preference of who’s making it. There are grilled sardines, of course, because the Portuguese are famous for their fishing prowess. There’s charred octopus, the thin tentacles blackened to a crisp and the meaty legs soft and sweet. And there’s one of my favorite dishes on the planet—mariscada em molho vermelho—where white rice gets flooded with a stew loaded with clams, shrimp, lobster and mussels.
Today we’ve headed to Newark to stock up on market supplies, and have chosen Taste of Portugal to see what they do with the staple dishes we each covet so much. I select cold octopus salad and some chouriço for the table, and we dig in.
The octopus starts firm, popping open into a sweet, soft interior, and bracingly tart from red wine vinegar and chopped onions. Nodding our heads in agreement as we chew, we decide that the chouriço’s crispy edges mean it must have been pre-sliced and grilled in the oven, where we’d cook it whole over flaming alcohol and slice it when fully charred. No dish is immune to comparison, and while we may note how we’d cook a dish differently, we clear the plate of every last slice in admiration.
The wine kicks in, we order our entrees, and talk turns to their past. My family emigrated in the late 1960s, but we return often to our home in the Azores, and they want to make sure Celso gets back again before travel becomes too complicated for him. They tell jokes about stubborn aged family members of yore, share memories of butchering the pig before Christmas when refrigeration hadn’t yet hit the island, and they challenge which brother was the most troublesome as a child, and which is the best cook now.
When our entrees come, the talk shifts back to food. The plates are gigantic; Octavio notes “they’re proud of how much food they give you.” My “Portuguese Steak,” cooked in the oven and topped with ham and a runny fried egg, served with crispy rounds of fried potatoes, could feed three (and, indeed, potatoes get quickly pilfered). Dad’s bean and seafood feijoada is disarmingly simpler than its Brazilian counterpart, with clams and sausage decorating white beans in tomato, but full of an earthy, pungent flavor that certain food people like to call “umami.” The lobster and clams in Celso’s mariscada em molho verde are lightly boiled just until their flesh is barely cooked through. And Octavio’s bacalao with potatoes, found on every menu often served in chunks, here comes shredded. I learn the next morning while ripping through leftovers that this makes for some killer breakfast hash.
Pretty much everything is finished off with a rough chop of parsley and a squeeze of lemon. It’s generous, filling food, flavored from simple vegetables most Portuguese people grow at home, whether in Europe or the United States: red peppers, chilies, onions, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and lemon. The three of them have generous gardens on the verge of flowering. Tio Celso is notorious for making cases of red and white wine I’d steal by the case. In New Jersey, cement driveways are often lined with pots and cans of growing things. Even my modest Manhattan window box grows me enough herbs to get through summer.
We order coffee and Port and I ask if this tradition is universal: Are there Portuguese men back home knocking off early from work on Friday and sitting as we are, now, with espresso in hand as the sunlight slowly crosses the dining room? Dad laughs in my face: “People in Portugal do Friday lunches every day!” In all seriousness, they explain how many local cafes offer a daily lunch special where, say, for five Euros, you can get bread, cheese, either a meat or fish entrée, coffee and wine. Some scurry in and out in their lunch hour. Others, like us, talk until the wait staff gets antsy for their pre-dinner shift meal.
The family in the corner still lingers, their laughter penetrating ours now and then. Other tables have filled and emptied, and the bar remains packed the entire time. I slap my credit down to claim the bill, which marks a shift of sorts, a changing of the social guard. At least it does for a few minutes, before my tios load me up with the leftovers and hug me like I’m still a kid.
In 1997, Kadir Taskin ponied up $1,600 to rent out a corner of an Arab bakery in Paterson, New Jersey, the largest city in Passaic County. Taskin had worked in restaurants in the area, and in Eskişehir, Turkey before that, and decided it was time to try his hand at the Turkish breads and pastries that his family made back home.
He baked at night when the ovens were available and started selling bread to local restaurants and markets—literally on his back, if you ask him. And he joked to his family, who’d recently moved to the U.S. after he spent seven years securing their Green Cards, that if the whole venture went belly-up, all they’d lose was $1,600.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Today, in 2016, the Taskins now own the bakery at 103 Hazel Street, and it’s become the launchpad for an Ottoman bread empire spread across four states with more expansion on the horizon. If you nibble from the bread basket at a Turkish restaurant in New Jersey or New York, or pick some up at a Middle Eastern market in those states or nearby Pennsylvania, there’s a decent chance you’re eating something from the Taskins’ ovens, which turn out thousands of breads and pastries a day and sell them to restaurants and markets. And as soon as you take a bite, you see why: This stuff is good. But if you make the trip to the bakery, which is conveniently open 24 hours for your troubles, it’s even better—enough to make you consider checking out local real estate.
Bread is life across the Middle East and Mediterranean, but it has special significance in Turkey, which is home to a carb culture as sophisticated and diverse as anything you’ll find in France or Italy. Think simit: crisp-chewy bracelets of dough blitzed with sesame seeds and sold from wheelbarrows in the morning. Kumru: football-shaped demi-demi-baguettes, also seed-covered and destined to be split open, blessed with butter, and grilled over flame before getting stuffed with twangy cheese and spicy sausage for the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich. Flatbreads of all kinds, from paper-thin, roti-like gözleme folded over with meat or vegetables, to poofy pita-like objects, yeasty and soft to sop up vegetable dips and runny eggs.
Very little of this extraordinary bread makes its way to the States, and where it does, it receives little recognition, even at a time when Middle Eastern cuisines have never been hotter. Most of the restaurants and bakeries that do produce Turkish bread in the U.S. aren’t particularly great at it, and of the few that are, even fewer have found substantial commercial success.
There are certainly exceptions to the middling anonymous wholesalers: Turkish import Güllüoglu, more famous for its baklava and other sweets than its bread, is franchised across New York City and New Jersey. Simit Sarayi, another Turkey-based chain, is making inroads to New York. And New York-based Simit + Smith now has eight locations in New York City and New Jersey, where they take a more modern spin, turning simit into sandwich fodder for smoked salmon or Nutella.
But none compare to the breadth and depth of what the Taskins are making in Paterson, a working-class Jersey city once famous for its silk industry that’s now undergoing an economic revival from immigrant businesses: Turkish restaurants and markets, Syrian kebab houses, Jamaican curry spots, and Puerto Rican pig roasters all in close proximity.
Taskin bread holds up well for a few days; its crust stays firm, its crumb soft and chewy and gently yeasty. But it’s crazy good when you try it from the bakery counter, still warm from the oven. That’s when the golden sesame seeds on the simit crackle in your mouth, releasing their nutty essence between your teeth while you tear through the bread’s just-crispy crust. A special tahini bread—think a sticky bun run amok through Istanbul’s spice market—is croissant-flaky but enriched with tahini and warm spices rather than butter. The dense, flat disk is lacquered with a caramelly glaze and flecked with a few more sesame seeds (noticing a theme here?); great at room temperature, eyes-rolling-in-bliss when heated up so it gets a little molten.
Going to the bakery is also the only way to experience gözleme the way it should be: hot off the flat top, feather-light, fresh-tasting, and a little elastic, with greens poking out of the edges. You’re in for a treat if you get to watch them make it at a counter near the door; bakers shimmy sheets of near-see-through dough across the griddle and fold it with exacting precision. Once you’ve stuffed your face with one, pick up a couple olive paste buns, and greaseless meat pies, and even some Italian bakery-style cookies that are way better than their Italian counterparts.
Derya Taskin, one of Kadir’s five daughters and the company’s vice president (in her spare time she’s Paterson’s deputy mayor and the president of the Turkish Institute for Progress), attributes the bakery’s success—$2 million in sales this year, she says—to the usual suspects. Respect for tradition, quality ingredients, commitment to stringent standards, that sort of thing. But she also points out the diligence of the people who power the operation.
Her sister Dudunur is the company’s general manager, overseeing around 40 employees, mostly Turkish but also Hispanic, Bulgarian, and beyond. “They all get along fine,” she says, “and teach each other their culture.” The bakers are also around three-quarters women: “We try to keep it even, but in truth, women work harder, and back home they’re usually the bakers in their families.”
The Taskin empire stretches across New Jersey Middle Eastern communities into New York City, Long Island, Pennsylvania, and a couple satellites in Florida. But with the exception of the shop at the bakery, it’s all wholesale business to restaurants and markets. That may change if the Taskins are able to open the cafe space in midtown Manhattan they have their eyes on; they’re also looking into opportunities in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Beyond those regions, Derya says the company website is getting an overhaul to allow for nationwide online ordering. (The bakery currently can fulfill such requests by phone.)
For diehard fans of Turkish bread in America, there’s nothing more thrilling. But for those lucky enough to live within driving distance of the original bakery, the real Taskin magic is always about the Paterson shop. The banner outside with the slogan Hand Made Freshly! The gözleme hot off the griddle and the unparalleled freshness of the breads. The cookie or small pastry that every kid who visits gets handed for free. And the golden sesame seeds that leap off the simit when you bite in, bejeweling your cheeks, your clothes, all the hidden crevices of your car. The rings rarely make it past the parking lot.
103 Hazel Street, Paterson, NJ
More Great Middle Eastern in Paterson
Need more reasons to visit Paterson? The city is a hot spot of excellent food from all over the Middle East. Once you’ve picked up your bread at Taskin, pay a visit to these restaurants.
With three locations around north Jersey, this palatial Turkish restaurant nails all the essentials from mezze to kebabs. The Paterson location is just across the street from Paterson and has a great three-course lunch deal for $13,
1083 Main Street, Paterson, NJ
Pide is often called Turkish pizza, and insofar as it’s a flatbread topped with cheese and baked in an oven or over coals, that’s about right. Most versions you’ll get in the New Jersey and New York area are wan and lifeless, but at Oz Karadeniz, the crust is well baked with a delicate chew and the cheese has the appropriate twang. It’s a far better pide experience than you’ll find virtually everywhere else. The menu has many varieties, but I’m partial to the gutbomb “everything” version with lamb, spicy sausage, and a runny egg on top.
1023 Main St, Paterson, NJ
A fully-stocked grocery with all the spices, bulk seeds and nuts, specialty cheeses, and pantry goods to build a Turkish kitchen right at home. The homemade sujuk, a spicy lamb sausage, is excellent here.
251 Crooks Avenue, Paterson, NJ
This no-nonsense kebab house grills meat over flame and boasts an impressive spinning column of shawarma. We’re into the butterflied grilled chicken, tender beneath its well-spiced charred skin. The limp accompanying fries won’t do much for you, but they make great fodder for dipping into a nostril-searing garlic sauce.
970 Main Street, Paterson, NJ
A massive restaurant with a whole separate dining room filled with exceptionally comfortable black leather chairs, the kind you’d find in your accountant’s office, that make for a good place to huddle up and pop back some antacids after eating three meals before 2 p.m. Oh, and the food’s good, too—flatbreads blitzed with quality za’atar and olive oil, and mezze worth a short stop.
1090 Main Street, Paterson NJ
Fried cauliflower and mohamarra (a piquant roasted pepper and nut dip) are both worth an order at this casual kebab and mezze spot. Just save room for the fateh, fried bits of pita topped with your choice of yogurt or hummus, then shavings of excellent shawarma and a dusting of fried almonds.
169 Crooks Avenue, Paterson, NJ