The midday meal in Newark is a GO.
By Andy Clurfeld
Photography by Daryl Stone
Whoever said that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” doesn’t know the dynamics of lunch choices in Newark. Whoever thought of that pathetic cereal-at-midday concept never explored the diversity of lunch options in Newark. Whoever invented lunch-at-one’s-desk as a path to career success is clueless about the energy palpitating from the myriad and many lunch scenes in Newark.
Fact is, you could eat lunch in Newark from morning till the toll of the traditional dinner bell daily for a year straight and be happily challenged by the sheer brio of it all. Forget stodgy; don’t think twice about running into snobby or any sort of caste system when it comes to seating or service. You will find friendly, you will find welcoming, you will find food that’s plain old fun and flavorful. You also will find it comparatively economical, especially if you’re used to lunch tabs in the ’burbs or Big Apple.
My take? Newark’s heritage as a business town lives on most proudly in its lunch trade. Many of the legends in the Ironbound do packed-crowd lunches, slightly smaller-scale portions of the groaning-plate dinners for which they have become justly famous. A number of the new upscale restaurants, particularly those in, or straddling, the downtown district, also serve forth at midday. The old-guard taverns and bars also know how to put on a food-filled show when both hands of the clock point north.
But in honor of Newark’s 350th, Radius photographer Daryl Stone and I wanted to go beyond the bounds of our usual Brick City eating borders. I wanted to check out a few places we hadn’t been. Daryl wanted a good burger. I researched, and researched, and came up with an itinerary for Lunch Spree 2016.
It was impossible to trim my initial list to 12. (I had a baker’s dozen, actually, on the Eve of Lunch Spree.) But I had to do the impossible. To then take it to six meant I was slicing off recommendations from some of my most trusted confederates—and places at which I really, really wanted to eat. But on the morning of Lunch Spree 2016, we set out with a list of six. And (relatively) empty bellies.
Where the Kids Are
32 Commerce St.
Lime green is the official color of any place in Newark that offers a plethora of healthy options at lunch. Maybe the color inspires diners, as it did us, to order green: Cream of Broccoli Soup; Split Pea with Ham Soup; “Sweet City” sandwich, with Granny Smith apples proving the ingredient of unification in a turkey-Brie layering wrapped in a spinach-green tortilla; and a custom-built salad of mixed greens, avocado, chickpeas, carrots and crumbled blue cheese, with olives, raisins and dried cranberries providing the accents.
We order this all at the counter of the clean-lined storefront that’s 30 minutes away from being inundated with students in between classes. It’s a pleasant space, sunny and quiet at this moment, and the kindly folks behind the counter want to make sure our tea is hot and our vittles as delicious as can be. The broccoli soup has an abundance of florets and a creamy texture that, thankfully, shuns flour as a thickener. The split pea soup is chunky with ham and carrots and, though it could use a shake of black pepper, it’s appropriately comforting.
Soup-and-sandwich? Soup-and-salad? Here come the students, we note as we rise to leave this serene haven. Smart kids, they are, for Cafe Airlie’s specialties are grade A, all the way.
5 Sussex Ave.
Enter to a counter lined with pastries and breads, and look up to a blackboard crammed with the names of bubble teas, smoothies, herbal teas, coffee drinks, juices—it’s an endless parade of the liquified. It’s so low-key here, though, that I have to ask the lovely gal behind that counter to speak up just a tad as she answers my questions.
I’m sold by the time I hear her say, “Everything on trays was made here this morning,” for much of the selection behind that counter is on trays. Small batches, in fact, of croissants and XXL chocolate chip cookies and little loaves of bread. We settle on Green Tea Bubble Tea and a Pineapple-Coconut Smoothie, then give the nod to the homemade chicken salad on an irresistible-looking croissant and one of those fiercely sized cookies.
Segue now to the dining room, which is filled with students at computers. I fear we’ve stumbled into a classroom at Rutgers/Newark and we’ll have to show a student ID before actually getting our food. But, no, the crowd’s a bit fluid, though the conversation consistently on academic point: A young woman enters, greets a gent in a suit-and-tie and fedora, and says, “My you are extra-snappily dressed today. Anything special?” Turns out the gent’s a grad school prof giving a talk later that day to visiting academics. Eavesdropping is an underrated sport, yes?
But my attention is brought, full-throttle, to our table, as the rouge-hued chicken salad-on-croissant arrives. I taste and rave: It’s charged with heat, chile’d heat, and it’s fabulous. The butteriness of the croissant tames ever so slightly the chilies—and the chicken love-love-loves both. The tropical smoothie is just the beverage partner for it, while the green tea with huge bubbles does a do-si-do with the cookie. Heck, the chocolate chips in that cookie are as big as bricks.
As I take stock of the flea-market-find mismatched cafe tables and chairs, Daryl scouts Intrinsic’s back yard: There’s an outdoor seating area, complete with fire pit, and spaces that seem fit for all sorts of student meetings-with-eating. (This place often stays open till midnight.) Intrinsic rocks, as we used to say.
Always Go Downtown…
Professor, Meet Mr. Gekko
61 Halsey St.
The counter culture continues as we stop into this hot spot on the hot shopping street astride the downtown. There’s a huge blackboard menu, a tin ceiling, an indoor street sign that reads “Art Kitchen Place.” There’s a magazine rack holding issues of “Yoga” and “Out In Jersey,” and lots and lots of people sporting university dog tags. The crowd is straight out of Cambridge, with a preponderance of people wearing arty specs tilted down-nose. Tweed jackets? You bet. There’s even a dead-ringer for Garrison Keillor.
I don’t need to eat; I’m sated by the scene alone. But there is a hummus platter and a collection of pressed sandwiches that lasso me back to my eating duties. And tea. My, who knew Newark was such a tea town?
Daryl’s finding the light delightful everywhere we stop, and no where moreso than in the nooks and crannies of Art Kitchen. She’s impressed by the pressed sandwich I’ve ordered, a perfect-pitch layering of roast beef, Muenster, caramelized onions and a horseradish-Dijon sauce, but waxes happiest about the lines of sun and shadow she’s snapping thanks to the way the sun filters through the windows here. Hummus has streaks of hot sauce-orange on it, which take to the sticks of carrots and celery we dip into the chickpea spread. Pita? Yup, soft and hot and hummus-loving.
Suddenly, a posse of definitely-not-academics enters. Financiers? Ah, yes, the tell-tale ear buds, the orders barked into space, the eyes darting around in search of hierarchy. They catch the drift here quickly, however, and proceed to the counter to order. They may have to wait for a table to open, but they can do it drinking ginger-lemon tea and, maybe, reading a page out of “Yoga” magazine. Breathe.
127 Halsey St.
Follow the signs at Harvest Table’s counter to what you want to order. Get your sandwiches and burgers here, your salads there, your drinks over yonder. They round it all up and present it to you seamlessly.
I can’t get past the salads; they are too interesting. There’s a special on this day, Cajun chicken with walnuts and stuffed grape leaves. It seems odd, but it surely intrigues. So does High Thai’d, a salad with shrimp and pineapple. Daryl loves shrimp, so I snag this one, too.
I’m a losing the ability to make quick selections by the time I mosey over to the drinks order line. But then Purple Haze, a smoothie spotlighting blueberries, catches my eye. Sold! Tropical Breeze, a smoothie with mango and banana—yes! OK, I’m back on track and delivering the goods to Daryl, who once again has scoped out the best-light table in this swell spot favored by shoppers and businessfolk.
The salads are a balanced mix of ingredients, a credit to the crew putting them together in split-second style. The N’Awlins-influenced seasoning on the chicken is decidedly un-shy, while the gingery-sesame dressing on the Thai toss has the spark of real-deal ingredients: I like the way it brings vim and vigor not only to the shrimp, but to the roasted peppers, cukes and charred pineapple chunks. The smoothies are fruit-strong, not filler-rich. Well done.
Bound for Glory: Burger
Extremes in the Ironbound
62 Van Buren St.
Lime green and orange and a bar, to boot: Burger Bound hugs a prominent corner in the presidential-street district of the Ironbound, and it does so with a purpose: to serve hand-crafted organic burgers of all stripes. Sure, you can get a classic beef burger here, but why not something with salmon or black beans or turkey or the completely unexpected?
Spacious and, once again, light-filled, this relative newcomer serves the lunch crowd, but keeps on keepin’ on into the night. (Karaoke, anyone? Friday nights. Exotic drinks? Any night.)
But we’ve finally arrived at a specialist in Daryl’s dream lunch, so we indulge. BB Sliders (BB = Burger Bound) and the Salmon Bound Burger, with caramelized onions, pesto, lettuce, tomato and pickles and Black Bean Cakes, just because they can serve as a stand-in for the veg burgers here.
Great food, for the most part. The BB Sliders might be our favorite, what with a delicious beef mix stealing the show amid a supporting cast of condiments that includes a spirited aioli, slivers of caramelized onions and avocados, a chop of cherry tomatoes and pickles. Daryl’s much-deserved reward. The Black Bean Cakes are more ball-shaped than cake-shaped, and they are stuffed with a pop of molten mozzarella and served with a honey-mustard sauce that at first seems incongruous and then grows on you. The Salmon Bound Burger is the least impressive; it’s a tad dry, a smidgen under-seasoned.
But our server’s driven to please and I can’t stop looking at the clever cylindrical pendants over the bar. And out at the patio, which by the time you read this, will be the place to be when you come to set a spell at Burger Bound.
118 Wilson Ave.
Krug’s is famous. You don’t need me to tell you about Krug’s; many wonderful and food-savvy writers already have done so, and they fall way, way, way shy of the Krug’s fans who have all the eating experience necessary to make the pronouncement that Krug’s competes for New Jersey’s best burger.
They tell you Krug’s is a womb for burgers. That its front tavern room, with TVs, TVs, TVs-turned-to-sports everywhere, is the dictionary definition of what a tavern should be. That the folks who run the place have the hospitality gene cornered. That the folks who frequent the place are screened to care just as deeply about supporting the cause of hospitality for all.
Can I add to the cheers for Krug’s burgers? The Bacon Cheeseburger comes with real cheese; if you order Cheddar, you get sharp, razor-sharp, melted Cheddar. Not to mention bacon that’s expertly cooked and beef that’s the most desirable ratio of meat-to-fat and a bun that’s fresh.
Do you know how many burgers I’ve ordered a “proper medium-rare” and gotten anything but? A zillion. Not at Krug’s. Here, it’s exacting. Perfect.
The Buffalo Blue Cheese Burger is lovable. There must be a cook out back who does nothing but make sure the balance of hot sauce to cheese is in sync. No kidding. Or it tastes like there’s such a specialist in the kitchen. Onion rings? A platter of all sizes on the onion slice spectrum is the side show of choice to the burgers.
Honestly, I’d like to come to Krug’s and spend a day. Eat one burger for a late breakfast when Krug’s opens at 11 a.m., a different burger for a mid-afternoon lunch, then a third burger for dinner. Watch the Yankees on TV.
This is what I’m thinking to myself as I watch Daryl shoot the burgers quickly so she can eat what she’s been craving ever since we started planning Lunch Spree 2016. “Wow,” she says. “These are really good. We have to come back here.”
We sure do.