While living in the Garden State as a transplant, I often found myself, surprisingly, defending her against the oft-repeated charges of spiteful New Yorkers and others (toxic odors, urban blight, enduring Bon Jovi fandom, the trappings of middlebrow or guido existence, etc.). I didn't have much to go on, and as an outsider, I partially agreed with what I heard. However, I could always rely upon the unimpeachable quality of the food available, which reflects the state's agricultural history and the ethnic diversity of its population.
I have since left Jerz, but somehow, she won enough loyalty for me to make this pact: to always emphasize the best she brings to the table. I did not try every place, and I tended to favor unique or traditional cuisines that represent a good value over expensive culinary innovation, with I think is better accomplished in NYC, but not always. With that, I offer, in my humble opinion, the Jerzee Top Ten (in no particular order):
-So Moon Nan Jip. In the heavily Korean community of Palisades Park is this BBQ joint, perhaps the best in the Tri-State area (though there are likely doubters in Queens). The banchan are plentiful and vary by the day, and a baked egg mixture and whole fried fish are usually provided with compliments. The dining room is often bustling and waits may be required, especially if a BBQ table is desired, but the experience is not to be missed. Real wood chips are inserted into the inlaid grill box red-hot, and the staff will dutifully tend to your pork belly or kalbi with periodic turns.
-Marco & Pepe (J.C.). The decor here seems simply too chic for new jersey, and more appropriate to the lower east side, carroll gardens, or elsewhere on the brooklyn front. The menu has Spanish, French, and American influences in the small/large plate concept, and there is a lot of variation and change, but some standard favorites include their applewood-smoked bacon BLT, charcuterie, and the high-end comfort food poly-cheese macaroni. Brunch outside on a late morning is harmonious, and they have a clever selection of Belgian brews, wines, and scotches.
-Moghul (Edison). In the South Asian milieu of Edison/Iselin, no eatery brings it quite like Moghul, located near a movieplex in a strip mall. The large dining area features a glassed-in cook, tending to the tandoor ovens containing succulent skewered meats and breads. In the waiting area, guests can pop open their BYOB's and peruse the celeb photos, including former Pres. Clinton. The menu delivers superior versions of the various rich, spice-laden Northern-style delights, as well as chaats and other vegetarian appetizers. My favorites include Machli Hara Masala, fish with a thoroughly green sauce of mint, chiles, and coriander, and Bindi Masla, curried okra.
-Casa Dante. After my first visit here, having observed that the waitstaff on hand far exceeded the demand, leaving the gruff tuxedoed gentlemen to hushed conversation in southern Italian dialects, I mentioned to a Jersey City native, tactlessly, that the restaurant "seemed like a mob front". He looked upon me gravely and said "we don't use...that word". Whatever the case may be, I cannot think of a more classy purveyer of Italian-American food. The remarkable seafood salad appetizer is dressed only with a judicious mixture of lemon and oil. The kitchen performs well with the various chicken and veal cutlets, served with pasta on the side, and also excels with arugala and broccoli rabe. The cheesecake is very good.
-The Frog & The Peach. Well-know innovative and vibrant cooking with a seasonal menu in New Brunswick. I haven't visited in several years, but I trust that it remains great.
-Sri Ganesh's Dosa House. A packed house, serving dozens of varieties of dosai and other South Indian vegetarian street snacks, overseen by the eponymous deity. http://www.villagevoice.com/bestof/20...
-Siri's French-Thai. In the strip-malled apocalypse of Cherry Hill, lies this bastion of succesful fusion cuisine, with aromatic herbal takes on boulliabasse, lamb cuts, and fish. BYOB policy keeps the bill manageable.
-Chez Sima. Morroccan sephardic and pan-Middle Eastern fare of impeccable quality in Fair Lawn. See http://www.chowhound.com/topics/312305
-Taqueria Downtown. Simply put, the best tacos (and perhaps Mexican cuisine) in the NYC-metro area, on a dead end corner in J.C. Exceptional weekend brunch, with huevos rancheros y Mexicanos. Inviting, thoughtful decor, including games, books and other pastimes. Run by a couple from LA and Mexico City, who had previously operated a taco truck for a time while studying their competition in the region.
-Seabra's Marisqueria. This seafood mecca in the traditional Portuguese enclave of Newark's Ironbound has unparalleled atmosphere, in the dining room or at the winding bar, near the catch of the day displayed on ice. There will be enticing specials, but try the feijoada de polvo on weekends (octopus and white bean stew), the dramatically presented skewered mixed grill, or the mariscada, assorted shellfish in a luxurious tomato broth with a bit of cognac.
Fiore's House of Quality, Hoboken (decades-old Italian deli serving perhaps the state's best sandwich, fortified by fresh "mutz" http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage... )
Shanghai Park, Highland Park (Shanghainese delights, including freshly formed soup dumplings, “lion’s head” meatballs, and cold appetizers)
Morgan Seafood, J.C. (Egyptian seafood in the style of Alexandria, fillets available fried or grilled with an addictive garlic-vinegar herb sauce http://www.villagevoice.com/bestof/20... )
Mandarin Chinese Restaurant, Highland Park (purveyor of handmade wheat noodles in black bean sauce, and other Korean/N. Chinese concoctions)
Kashmir Grocery and Halal Meat, Edison (Indo-Pak market with remarkable kebab rolls on fresh-baked breads)
Grimaldi's, Hoboken (outpost of storied Brooklyn pizzeria)
Crown Palace, Marlboro (outstanding Cantonese/dim sum with elaborate garden views)