Last week, I celebrated my 40th year on this planet. And no, I wasn’t living on another planet prior to this one. I’m looking forward to being 40 and being in my 40s, though. I’m a lot wiser now than I was when I was 30, and I would seriously give my 20-year old self a good kick in the backside.
At the same time, it is fun to look back at all of things I have seen, heard, experienced…and of course, tasted. What food experiences shaped my likes and dislikes…what distant gastro-memories still stick with me now as if they happened last week instead of, say, 1978 (some of you were around in 1978, right? Lie if you have to.)…
In no particular order, here’s 40 taste/dining experiences over my first 40 years of life that I still treasure:
* Biting into and burning my mouth on a panzarotti from Vincent’s in Merchantville, circa 1982. But that deep fried and gooey with cheese goodness made me want more.
* Zaberer’s and my first Shirley Temple. What a visual wonderland that was for little ‘un like myself. Long drive to get there, but it was a very special night. One of those first experiences where a meal was the evening’s entertainment.
* Tasting sushi for the first time at a little place in Haddonfield in my early teens. Sitting on the floor in a tatami room (you can sit on the floor in a restaurant???), sampling raw tuna. It seemed so exotic, so not suburbia. I was starting to head down the path to gastronomic adventure.
* Sampling the beers at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown NY almost two years ago. A glorious selection of Belgian-styled beers, all unique in flavor and all pretty high in alcohol content. Word of advice: don’t do what I did and go there on an empty stomach – not conducive to driving.
* Restaurante Pizarro in Trujillo, Spain during our trip there in 1999 after the wedding of my roomie in college to a Spanish women he met while studying in Edinburgh. The menu had five, maybe six items; almost all involved pork, and all were excellent. Coming from The Land of Big Menus, it was certainly an important lesson to learn: keep it simple and do it well.
* A cheesesteak from Gaetano’s in Willingboro (where I grew up). I’ve tasted many many MANY other cheesesteaks in my time – including all the well-known joints in Philly – but I still come back to Gaetano’s. Actually, make mine a pizza steak – for me, the perfect comfort food.
* I still loves me a Slurpee, especially on a warm summer day.
* Surf Taco has only been around for about a decade, and yet they seem like they have been here in Ocean County forever. My personal favorite item on their menu is the Buffalo Soldier burrito. Crunchy and spicy chicken pieces wrapped up with plenty of rice and veggies. Won’t leave you hungry.
* Finally made it down to Delaware Bay Days in Bivalve last year and got to sample oysters that had come right from the bay. I now truly understand the feeling of tasting the sea in one’s seafood. Briny and ethereal, these oysters were special.
* There was nothing that could have prepared me for the first time I ate with my future in-laws and celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Oh my – what a spread of fried, broiled, and spicy fish dishes! Christmas Eve would never ever be the same for me.
* The night a good foodie friend of ours took us to a Chinese restaurant in the Princeton area many years ago turned out to be a gastronomical game-changer for us. Upon arrival, he asked the waiter for the ‘second’ menu. A second menu? With a smile, these secret menus were brought out and we were out of the realm of your typical Chinese fare: whole crispy fish, little dumplings swimming in hot chili oil, beautiful greens cooked in only garlic and love. What a revelation.
* China 46 in Cliffside Park(R.I.P.) was quite the remarkable dining experience. This restaurant made three of the best dishes I have ever sampled in a Chinese restaurant: seaweed-fried flounder, superior ruby pork (and it was superior), and a hot and sour seafood soup that was otherworldly. For a few years, this was our Chinese New Year destination.
* When I was a younger lad, and as many a younger lad in Jersey did, I spent a lot of time in diners. And when I did, I would almost always order the snapper soup. If you stop into any diner along Route 130 (aka The 130), you’ll find snapper soup on the menu. It’s the gumbo of our region.
* Going to the Toms River Diner on a first date back in the summer of 1990. My dinner consisted of: Manhattan clam chowder, mashed potatoes and a chocolate milkshake. The reason? I just had my molars pulled. My date? That would have been Lisa. By the way, Lisa had a pork roll with cheese sandwich that night. Ah – so romantic we were.
* The chorizo from Spain that we smuggled home in our suitcase back in ’99 (yes, that trip had a few memorable food moments). You just can’t get chorizo this good here – it must be all about the fattier pigs. Lisa made a simple dish of the chorizo cooked with onion. Wonderful.
* As you would imagine, the food was very important at our wedding back in 2001, and that included our wedding cake. We were still living up in North Jersey at the time, and we couldn’t think of a better place to make our cake than Mazur’s in Lyndhurst. They made us a beautiful and delicious cake: three different layers with three different fillings.
* Back in the late 1990s, when we were a little more, como se dice, affluent, Lisa treated me to a schwanky birthday dinner at Scalini Fedeli in Chatham. What made this meal so special was that I finally had my first taste of truffles and foie gras – not in the same dish, mind you. Pure luxury. If you ever have the chance, I can highly recommend both of them.
* My introduction to Cuban food was via Azucar in Edgewater, and they served two dishes that really stick out in my mind: their appetizer tower for two, which was a bounty of chicken, pork and yucca yummies, and a dish that was described as, simply, two enormous pork chops. ‘How enormous could they be?’ I said when I first ordered them. They did not lie: they were enormous. And amazing. And yes – we did enjoy a good cigar there every so often.
* Back in 2000, Lisa and I took a car trip down to Charleston SC and Savannah GA. On our first night in Savannah, we dressed to the nines and went to Elizabeth’s on 37, which was considered one of the best in the country at the time. The next day, we had lunch at Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House. I couldn’t tell you any of the items we ate at Elizabeth’s, but I have a very fond memory of our lunch at Mrs Wilkes. Fried chicken that was off the charts good, and an endless supply of sides served family-style in big bowls. We sat at a table of 10 with two vacationing couples from Ohio who loved to seek out Wal-Marts wherever they traveled…and across from them was a crew from the local Wal-Mart grabbing lunch. Can’t make this stuff up.
* Living near Fort Lee and all of the Asian restaurants therein was a nice plus back some years ago. One place in particular that we loved was Yea Jeon. Open pretty much 24 hours a day, Yea Jeon was my introduction to Korean food, and what a nice introduction it was. Sadly, they have also since closed up.
* Also in Fort Lee is Silver Pond, and this is where we found dim sum. If you have never participated in a dim sum meal – oh man, you have to do it like now…maybe even sooner. After your first taste of pork buns, you’ll thank me.
* Anthony Bourdain talks about how his favorite meal was a burger at a bar on the beach in Jamaica. It wasn’t so much the burger itself but just being in the moment, enjoying the sun and sand. Maybe my favorite such moment was the two of us having strawberries and champagne from the 30th floor in the old PSFS building in Philadelphia looking over the city, almost as if we were floating over it. Do I remember how the strawberries and champagne tasted? Not really. But the moment was such a happy one that it really doesn’t matter.
* It’s always a sign that winter is behind us and summer is in our sights when Rich’s Ice Cream on Route 37 in Toms River opens up. We always make it a point to grab a soft cone or a flurry soon after the place is open; it’s tradition.
* A sub shop that gets a 24 in Zagat’s? How could this be? It could only be White House Subs. Between the fresh bread, top-notch cold cuts, and a little kick from the minced peppers, the line you had to wait in to get a seat won’t seem so bad.
* I thought I knew what good chicken tasted like…then we ate the rotisserie chicken at Super Pollo II in Brick. Wow. Blew that notion right out of the water. I don’t know what they put into their birds to make them taste so gosh darn good, but you just need to go and try it for yourself. Oh, and the rest of the menu is pretty darn good as well.
* Ever have a meal where you actually were willing to pay more for it? I had such a meal at Piccolo Venezia in Boston way back in the mid 1990s. They served me a steak pizzaiola that was to die for, and I almost did out of yumminess overload. It was also the first time I can really remember having a long conversation about food with a chef. The passion that flowed out of his words was engrossing. Maybe the seeds of this blog were planted right then and there.
* A Fourth of July tradition at my in-laws born out of getting asked to leave an all-u-can-eat crab event at a restaurant: Crab Fest! Just pile ’em up on your plate, grab some crackers and make a happy mess. Oh, and a have a beer or five (so long as you’re not driving).
* Lisa’s late grandmother (Grandma Fusco) was well known for taking a little of this and a little of that and making simply wonderful dishes. My favorite of hers was her chicken with the hot peppers. And it was not just with the hot peppers, but it was with the hot pepper juice and garlic. When eating such a dish, it was important to make sure that the person sitting next to you was a) eating the same dish as well, b) loved you very much, or c) carried a welding mask – because you would have serious fire breath. You could melt paint with that breath.
* For a few years, we used to throw a big New Year’s Eve dinner party at our house. We’d invite a bunch of friends and go nuts making a big spread of dishes. One year Lisa made a beer-based bouillabaisse that was just amazing. When good ingredients and a good recipe in the hands of a capable cook all click together, it’s magic for the mouth.
* My mom is a recipe cook. And whoever came up with the recipe for the gingerbread men she makes every year for Christmas, I’d like to kiss them. Not crisp like a ginger snap, these cookies are soft and cake-like and so very well-spiced. It’s the one cookie we all look forward to getting during the holidays – and we eat a lot of cookies.
* Rumor is that someone in my family has Grandma Howard’s collection of recipes. I will need to seek out who that is, if only to get a hold of her homemade root beer recipe. Light on carbonation, but very strong in flavor, it was such a treat to get during the holidays.
* OK, this is the last reference to the Spain trip we took – I promise. So, OK, Rick Steves mentioned this restaurant in his guide book on Spain – but that takes nothing away from the meal we had at Casa Ciriaco in Madrid. Think of a really good old school mom and pop Italian restaurant in a New York neighborhood and that gives you an idea. And even though the waitstaff spoke very little English, and we could barely muster enough Spanish, through humor and food we communicated very well and enjoyed each others’ company. A wonderful night.
* All I can say is that Belgians, by and large, must be the happiest friggin’ people on the planet. Why do I say this? Just go to Monk’s in Philly and enjoy a bucket of mussels, some pommes frites and a good Belgian beer – and you’ll be friggin’ happy, too.
* It was a sad day when we learned that Michael’s in Hoboken was closing. We used to live right across the way, and whenever we ate there, we just had to get their plate of fried calamari. Although listed as an appetizer, this was no appetizer. This was a mound of fried and tender love. It was a good thing we lived so close; I don’t know how we would have been able to waddle home even if we were a block further down the street.
* On the same block as Michael’s was Fiore’s, a great old school Italian deli. Their specialty was their fresh mozzarella. You eat that, and you can’t imagine having any other kind. Thankfully, Fiore’s is still around, so if you’re ever up in Hoboken, take the walk down to 4th and Adams. It will be worth the trip.
* Look, I know it’s not authentically Indian, but dammit – I love chicken tikka masala. I would eat my own foot if it was cooked tandoori-style and then smothered in a fragrant tomato and cream sauce. I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but I think you get the idea.
* I love happy accidents, and that was certainly the case when we went to a festival on Landis Avenue in Vineland and stumbled upon Sweet Life Bakery. We sampled a tart at their stand in the festival, and it was too late. We were hooked. Not only is everything so delicious, they have such a commitment to using local ingredients – which is something that we really appreciate. I know that Vineland is not the most convenient of towns to get to, but you won’t sorry if you make the trip to Sweet Life.
* So, what kind of burger place would have a line out the door in a light cold drizzle in February? White Manna in Hackensack and their little burgers of joy. Now, if you took the parts of the burger apart, you may not be impressed…BUT, combine those little patties with some cheese and fried onions on a potato roll, and it is magical.
* I have never been a guy who likes the bar scene, but if I had to pick one bar that I love, it’s Peculiar Pub on Bleecker Street in NYC. It’s kind of dive-y in its appearance, and the waitstaff is, well, it’s New York so you’re going to get a bit of attitude. But the beer list – ho hooo Nelly! Hundreds of beers. Hundreds! It’s where I first fell in love with Xingu (a black Brazilian beer) and sipped my first Thomas Hardy barley wine.
* And, to round out the list and at the same time stay on beer, there was the night a group of us shared a glass jug of Cristoffel Robertus at The Burp Castle in NYC. I can’t explain the exact circumstances, but all of us around the table were convinced that we had just tasted the best beer in the history of beers. And this group included an honest-to-goodness German, so that should count for something, right? The Burp Castle is serious about its beers, so don’t even think about ordering a Bud.
So what will the next 40 years bring? Hopefully, continued health, maybe a job – and plenty more eating experiences.
How did you like the list? What food experiences made a lasting impression on you in your lifetime so far? Tell us about it.