Friday, February 19, 2010

Ray's Braise: College Towns - New Brunswick

[Every other week, Ray takes us on a culinary tour of the tri-state area and treats us to some of his favorite recipes. Enjoy! -Max]


Photo Courtesy Monyca White

My eight-year stint as a college student will come to an end for now come this May, as I prepare to graduate from Rutgers University with my Masters degree. Being on the cusp of this accomplishment has caused me to reflect back on the time I've spent there - and of course, the meals I've eaten! When we think of the dining habits of college students, we usually think of ramen noodles, crowded dining halls, and student centers filled with the usual array of fast food chains. But by wandering outside the university grounds, there's usually a whole world of great, reasonably priced food to be found.

College towns tend to be a hub of global dining, due to the large population of international students, as well as students ready to broaden their dining horizons, and New Brunswick is no exception. Home to the biggest university in New Jersey, its dining scene is diverse and thriving. The main hub is along a stretch of Easton Avenue, directly off the main College Avenue campus. This is home to some of the city's most popular restaurants, so get there early if you don't want to compete with hundreds of students for a seat!

One of my favorites is Noodle Gourmet, a reasonably priced Chinese restaurant. While Chinese food is omnipresent, Noodle Gourmet distinguishes itself by serving a more authentic version, complete with Shanghai and Mandarin specialties. Bypass the standard lunch specials and order from the noodle soups or the Chinese specialties printed on the wall. The service is friendly, and the food is ample and delicious.

In terms of value, it's hard to beat Edo Japan, just up the street from Noodle Gourmet. While Edo's dinner options can be overpriced, they have one of the best lunches in the city - a bento special that gives you rice, salad, dumplings, vegetable tempura, crab-and-cucumber rolls, and a main course of your choice (go with the sensational Salmon Teriyaki) all for $7.95. Easton's main drag also includes a Jamaican take-out, a Lebanese grill, a taqueria, and New Brunswick institution Stuff Yer Face, an old-fashioned place that serves only one item - an overstuffed stromboli sandwich filled with sauce, meat, and cheese - in over 12 varieties. One of the most exciting additions to Easton Avenue is the new Tula Restaurant and Lounge, a mid-priced New American bistro offering twists on classic dishes such as pulled pork or flatbreads. I tried their pulled pork sandwich as a lunch special recently, and found it to be flavored far more subtly than the oversauced pulled porks that are often found at barbecue chains.

Easton Avenue may be where most of the college kids come for lunch, but I've been visiting New Brunswick since I was a kid, and there's more to be found in the more urban area of the city. In recent years, New Brunswick has become one of New Jersey's most prestigious dining centers with such restaurants as Delta's, The Frog and The Peach, and Daryl Wine Bar and Restaurant, all perfect for a special night on the town. But for day-to-day dining, you can't beat The Round Grill, a Mongolian barbecue joint. This style of dining involves preparing a bowl of frozen meat, vegetables, noodles, and sauces from a buffet, which is then grilled in front of you by the chef. It makes for a very filling, delicious meal, and trust me - the one-bowl lunch special will be more than enough to satisfy! With three meats, 15 vegetables, and ten sauces, there is no limit to the combinations that can be designed for every taste.

One of the most unique dining experiences you can have in New Brunswick is the Ethiopian restaurant Makeda. Ethiopian food is still somewhat hard to find except in the biggest cities, but Makeda has been a New Brunswick mainstay for over ten years. This spicy cuisine mostly consists of intensely flavored stews eaten with the unique, spongy Ethiopian bread Injera. And when I say this food is spicy, I mean fiery! This will not be to everyone's tastes, but I found the flavors to be among the most intense and delicious I've ever tasted. I particularly recommend the Minchetabesh, a ground beef dish tasting of cardamom, offered as a lunch special.

A little further down George Street will bring you to the George Street Co-Op and Cafe, a vegetarian health food store offering a massive array of organic snacks and prepared foods. Some of the dessert offerings there, such as the cashew butter granola cubes, are good enough to even attract this avowed omnivore to this little slice of vegetarian heaven.

If you've got an adventurous palate, there are many great lunches awaiting you in New Brunswick. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another Rutgers institution, probably the number one food people think of when they hear Rutgers...the Rutgers University Grease Trucks. These famous trucks are known for their massive gut bombs of sandwiches. One, the "Fat Darrell", is an overstuffed concoction of marinara sauce, french fries, chicken fingers, and mozzarella sticks - and it was recently named the best sandwich in America. There are over twenty varieties of "Fat sandwiches", some vegetarian, all spectacularly unhealthy, and they're adding new ones all the time. The cooks running the trucks are always happy to customize a sandwich for you, and several created this way have been added to the regular menu. On one cool fall day, I decided to try one of these beasts, customizing one without cheese but loaded with everything else I could find. It was a delicious, greasy mess, but definitely not something I would eat too often. Give me a teriyaki salmon bento any day.

But then, that's the beauty of college towns. There's something for everyone. Having spent four years going to school in New Brunswick, I've come to love the city's unique dining scene. Not everything is to my tastes, but there are some places that will keep me coming back long after I've graduated. New Brunswick is a bit like a microcosm of all the cultures that come to Rutgers to learn. And food is the international language.

My next column will take us to a very different college town - Princeton, NJ.

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