Savor City

Paterson, the one-time Silk City, is a Great Falls of ethnic eating.

Customers at The Experience in Paterson.
Photo by Christopher Villano.

When Linn Smith bags your takeout order at her Jamaican restaurant in Paterson, she doesn’t say, “Have a nice day,” she says, “Have a bless day.” And whether you eat in or take out, you will feel blessed to partake of some of the best Jamaican food this side of Montego Bay.

In bustling Paterson, Jamaican is just one of many ethnic cuisines ready to provide serious eaters a bless day. Just as any tour of the one time “Silk City” would include the Great Falls (newly declared as a national park) and the century-old red-brick factories now converted to upscale residences, a culinary tour of the second most densely populated city in the United States (after New York, according to the 2000 census) would include neighborhoods resounding with the Spanish, Arabic, and Creole patois of immigrants who have brought their vivid native cuisines to this city on the Passaic River.

“Ethnic restaurants have always been part of Paterson’s identity,” says lifelong Patersonian Glenn Hutton, 45, community relations aide of the Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center and a painter who resides in an old mill restored as artists’ lofts. “Paterson kids grow up on immigrant food. For me, it was Cantonese at Port Arthur’s and pizza at Tony’s in the Alexander Hamilton Hotel.”

With Hutton as my guide, I embarked on a gustatory grand tour that began with Linn’s. In three visits to Jamaica, I have never eaten island staples like braised oxtail, curried goat, or jerk pork or chicken quite as intensely flavorful as those served at Smith’s twenty-year-old establishment, Linn’s Place (516 Park Ave, 973-345-7400). Smith’s table coverings are vinyl, but her braised oxtail—cooked with fresh onion, garlic, salt and pepper, and other seasonings for almost three hours, then served over rice and beans with steamed cabbage (small, $9; large, $10)—puts to shame braised meats served at many white-linen restaurants.

Linn’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dinner platters, sides included, range from $9 to $12.50. Come in the morning and you can enjoy the traditional breakfast of ackee and saltfish, which I have never found outside Jamaica. Saltfish is dried cod, boiled and soaked to desalinate, then cooked with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and pepper, and finally sautéed with ackee, an originally West African fruit whose innards are creamy, sweet, and yellow, resembling scrambled eggs.

The Experience (336 Chamberlain Ave, 973-595-1818) is a 38-seat magnet with an urban commodity, its own parking lot. (Truth be told, on-street parking is not hard to find in Paterson.) Soul food is often combined in a single pot, with more than ample gravy—for example, the Experience’s gravy-smothered pork chops ($8.50). Chef Marlon Deane says the Experience has “taken black food and made it restaurant style.”

Come hungry; dinner plates, such as moist, baked catfish, jerk chicken, and barbecued salmon come replete with toothsome sides like dense cornbread, luscious macaroni and cheese, and garlicky, fresh-tasting collard greens.

“There’s a lot of civic pride in Paterson,” Hutton says. “We’re proud of the Great Falls and of our old red-brick factories and mills. And we’ll go mano a mano with anyplace over our restaurants.” While it can’t rival the Falls for longevity, Guernsey Crest Ice Cream (134 19th Ave, 973-742-4620), founded in the early 1930s, is an institution run to this day by the Cornwell family. There are at least 25 flavors. Single-scoop cones are a bargain at $1.50, even if they aren’t, as twenty-year employee Bob Livi puts it, “monsters.” Bulk ice cream is $4 for a pre-packed half gallon or $4.25 for a hand-packed pint “so full you can’t put the lid on,” Livi says. Guernsey Crest’s best seller is vanilla. “People also love our Grape-Nuts flavor, which is big in Jamaica, and lots of our customers are from there,” Livi says. “It’s vanilla with Grape-Nuts in it.”

Paterson’s Italian community has dwindled, but at the vintage 1966 Torpedo Base U.S.A. (223 Lafayette St, 973-278-7878), Barbara and John Cerniglia still do a brisk business in subs. There are no seats, just a counter for take-out orders of well stuffed heroes like the 12-inch “torpedo” (ham, cappicola, salami, provolone), $8.

In Paterson today, Colombian arepas, or corncakes, are easier to find than cannoli. Just over half of Paterson’s population is Latino, including Mayor José “Joey” Torres. The first wave of Latino immigration, in the 1950s and ’60s, brought Puerto Ricans to the city. La Lechonera Bayamon (422 Main St, 973-653-6235) is a luncheonette painted tropical green whose name celebrates both the Puerto Rican coastal town and the island’s slow-roasted, crackly-skinned lechon, or pork. Available to stay or go, and served with rice and beans, the $7 lechon is crunchy, fatty, and completely addictive.

Dominicans brought their own dishes to Paterson beginning in the 1970s. El Tropico (27 Park Ave, 973-742-3100) is the place to sample one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular dishes, mofongo, which can roughly be described as a Dominican version of a matzoh ball, except stuffed and served with garlic sauce. El Tropico’s softball-sized mofongo is $5 with cheese in its indented top, $7 with pork, chicken, spicy longaniza sausage, or beef, and $14 with shrimp. Dominican-born owner Francisco “Frank” Jimenez has imbued his restaurant with upscale ambience: a white-tiled floor, potted palm trees, and an outdoor dining deck. El Tropico also has a liquor license, a rarity among ethnic restaurants in Paterson.

The pan-Latino stronghold of 21st Avenue in the People’s Park area (better known now as La Veintiuno) is dotted with cheerful Colombian restaurants like Tierras Colombianas (395 21st Ave, 973-742-3736). It has orange stucco walls and friendly waitresses, some of whom can banter in English and help navigate the vast menu. National specialties, all served in large portions, include pollo a la brasa, or salty rotisserie chicken sparked with green aji pepper sauce; mondongo, or tripe stewed with hominy grits, onions, and garlic; and fresh-baked arepas. Can’t decide? The $10.95 montañero (“country”) tasting platter includes stewed beef and pan-fried pork with rice and beans, sweet plantains, and an arepa.

Directly across the street, the bustling takeout spot Banana King (390 21st Ave, 973-742-8777) is one of a four-store Passaic and Hudson County mini-chain run by Colombian-born brothers Alex and Omar Vega. Specialties include native noshes like arepas with cheese or ham toppings and salchipapas, a peasant breakfast dish of fried potato spears laden with hunks of garlicky pork sausage. But Banana King’s marquee items are its milkshakes. The illuminated list overhead includes mango, lulo (a tangy member of the nightshade family), mamey (sometimes called South American apricot), chinola (passion fruit), pina colada, fresa (strawberry), and guanabana (soursop).

New Jersey’s Peruvian population is concentrated in Paterson, where a lively strip of Market Street on the west side of town is called Little Lima. Sixteen years after Griselda Chavez opened her restaurant here, Griselda’s (81 Market St, 973-225-0331) is still going strong. Griselda’s traditional Peruvian dishes and copious servings attract multigenerational families. Many orders commence with a ceviche, the lime-marinated seafood cocktail invented in coastal Peru. (Children like grabbing the crab claw that tops the platter.) Parihuela, a tomato-based seafood soup, is tasty and filling, and Griselda’s jalea, or mixed fried seafood, is so good that a big platter ($13) is polished off in no time. The same goes for the restaurant’s chaufa—Chinese fried rice heaped with seafood Peruvian style in chunky bites surrounded by slivers of red onions and slices of lime ($15).

Those with Middle Eastern roots constitute one of the fastest growing communities here. Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Palestinian immigrants, among others, share a grand mosque, Masjid Jalalabad, in the renovated, once-endangered 1921 Orpheum Theater. A long stretch of Main Street in the South Paterson neighborhood amounts to a Jersey souk, or market, encompassing all kinds of shops and Middle Eastern eateries.

The Turkish restaurant Hummus Antep Sofrasi (942 Main St, 973-247-0066, hummusturkishrestaurant.com) is appealingly rustic, with hand-hewn wooden tables, saffron-yellow walls, and a capacious shrub-bordered dining garden. Chef Eyup Turgut and his sister, Ferda, hail from a long-standing Istanbul restaurant family. Their extensive menu features small-plate meze appetizers ($4.94–$5.95) such as the namesake chickpea dip, babaganoush, zucchini pancakes, and eggplant salad. Among the entrées ($11.95–$17.95) are specialties from south central Turkey’s Gaziantep Province such as Antep kebab, charcoal-grilled ground lamb mixed with chopped pistachios for a nutty richness.
The Turguts’ restaurant is soothing and even romantic. For a scene, however, you can’t beat Al-Basha (1076 Main St, 973-345-3700, albashanj.com), presided over by Palestinian-born local mover and shaker Yaser Baker. Lit by hand-carved Moroccan chandeliers, Al-Basha (which means big man in charge) is a favorite gathering place for Muslim families (usually including one celebrating a milestone event in the semiprivate side room), plus adventurous diners from the surrounding suburbs, “and cops,” says Baker. “Paterson cops like my food.”

So did I. Al-Basha’s Middle Eastern and Lebanese menu showcases perfectly flavor-balanced appetizers like Syrian muhamara, a salad of roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and ground walnuts—spoon it over the fresh, puffy pitas. Then order kebabs—chicken, lamb, beef—or a daily special like Friday’s lamb mansaf, a Jordanian recipe of lamb cooked in yogurt served over almond-sprinkled rice.

For an experience of dizzying abundance, stroll a few doors west to Mondial Pastry (1068 Main St, 973-247-0010). Here you will find myriad Syrian sweets carefully arranged in pyramids. Don’t sweat the decisions; splurge on a boxed assortment and invite the neighbors.

Veteran food journalist Karen Tina Harrison is one of NJM’s regular restaurant reviewers.

Click on the following links to read more articles from August’s Special Dining Issue:

The 25 Best Restaurants in New Jersey.

Readers’ and Critic’s Choice Restaurant Poll: The results of our 26th Annual Readers’ Choice Restaurant Poll.

Save My Restaurant: Owners learn to be careful what they wish for after inviting Gordon Ramsay and his reality TV series Kitchen Nightmares to right their ships.

Jersey Lightning: The Laird family of Scobeyville has been distilling applejack a long time. How long? They once gave George Washington the recipe.

The Wizard Of Zod: Why New York wants to grab New Jersey’s hugely talented, most idiosyncratic chef, and why he doesn’t want to leave—yet.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

Get dining articles like this delivered straight to your inbox

Read more Eat & Drink articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.