[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]
Illustration by Donal DeLay
Every University has its own culture, and the towns surrounding them tend to match. Where Rutgers is casual, Princeton is blue-blood. Where New Brunswick is urban, the city of Princeton is touristy. I never attended Princeton, but I've had the pleasure of visiting the city many times and sampling its culinary offerings. While you won't find the same cultural diversity or great cheap eats you'll find in New Brunswick, what you will find is a surprising amount of fine dining and some classic restaurants that can transport you to a bygone era of dining - as well as possibly the finest ice cream parlor in New Jersey.
One of the most important rules when eating out in a college town is this: just because hundreds of students crowd it every day doesn't mean it's your best bet for good food. This rule is in effect in full force at Princeton's hottest lunch ticket, PJ's Pancake House. Every time I came to Princeton, I would see lines of hungry students gathering outside this 35-year-old institution. Intrigued, I arrived early the next time to try the place before the crowds arrived, and was somewhat unimpressed. They have a wide variety of pancakes, including some like Peanut Butter and Chocolate or Old West Buckwheat that are pretty unique, but the batter is fairly standard. Not much different from what you'd get at an IHOP or make at home. But it's decent comfort food, and it definitely has its fans - hundreds of them daily.
Surprisingly, my pick for the best food in Princeton comes not from a restaurant, but from a small storefront fish market, Nassau Street Seafood Company. Sandwiched between two of Princeton's most popular restaurants (Asian fusion restaurant Tiger Noodles and seafood bistro Blue Point Grill), this take-out shop serves a simple menu of fresh seafood dishes, all for under $10. Tuna burgers, grilled fish, pickled salmon salad, fried catfish, crab cakes, and shrimp po'boys are all available daily, along with seasonal specialties. While hardly a nice sit-down meal (although Nassau street is such a nice area, with benches aplenty, that it shouldn't be a problem except in inclement weather), the quality of the seafood may be the best in town. The fried catfish has become my go-to lunch when I visit.
A lot of the restaurants in Princeton are institutions, serving dependably good food for decades. This is unusual, as nowadays restaurants come and go with the trends. Some, like the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, French bistro Lahiere's, and old-school Cantonese spot Karen's Restaurant, are pretty expensive, but one place that's a favorite with all budgets is The Alchemist and Barrister, an old-fashioned pub serving classic American and British favorites like burgers, shepherd's pie, and my personal favorite, a flavorful lamb stew served with Irish soda bread (which is great for dipping in the gravy when you're done). With all lunch entrees under $15 and served in very nice portions, this is probably the best bet in town if you're looking for a hearty meal.
In recent years, a lot of New Jersey's hottest restaurants have made their name in Princeton, with Mediterranean bistro Mediterra, New American joint Elements, and Italian trattoria Sotto Caffe all getting great critical notices. But one place that seems to have gotten overlooked is Princeton Restaurant Underground. And that's a shame, because you won't find another restaurant like this in New Jersey. Located (surprise!) underground on a side street, this hipster hangout is decorated with modern art and unique architecture. Not exactly the place you'd expect to find the best Bulgarian food around. Founded by a famous Bulgarian soccer player, the menu here is about half standard Italian-American offerings, half unique Bulgarian dishes that you can't find anywhere else. The Chicken Paprika soup is the perfect way to start the meal, an intensely flavored broth studded with chicken and little dumplings. For the main course, look no further than the options served on hot rocks, a unique cooking style in which the item you choose (chicken, sausage, beef, salmon, seafood, or a combination) is cooked at the table on smoothed hot rocks, creating an interesting flavor of grilling without charring the meat. This is by far the most unusual dining experience I've had in Princeton, and I never pass one of those up.
This is just scratching the surface of the food available in Princeton. There are countless pizzerias, sub shops, and sushi joints, if that's your preference. One of my favorites is a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint called Joe's Roasters and Ribs. Good barbecue is hard to find in NJ, and this is one of those hidden gems. But one thing's for sure - after any of these meals, you'll be ready to wash it down with some dessert. There are a couple of ice cream parlors and coffee shops along the main drag, but don't be distracted by them. For dessert in Princeton, there's only one choice worth taking - The Bent Spoon. Located in the old-fashioned Palmer Square shopping center, this little place specializes in all-natural house-made ice creams and sorbets, the flavors changing regularly. You can go to the Bent Spoon every month of the year and find a completely different array of flavors each time, tailored to the season, the holidays, or whatever sparks the owners' creativity. Having just come back from sampling their February flavors, themed to Valentine's day, I was extremely impressed with their Passionfruit Sorbet. On past trips, I tried Tehrune apple sorbet, made from fruit from a nearby orchard, and a mango sorbet that tasted as though it was made from ripe mangoes. That's the most impressive part of the offerings at The Bent Spoon - every one of them clearly evokes their ingredients, unlike most of the processed offerings at other places. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but The Bent Spoon may serve the best frozen desserts in New Jersey.
This concludes my look at New Jersey's college towns. The two towns couldn't be more different, but they both contain some of my favorite places to eat in New Jersey. My time in college may be coming to an end shortly, but I have no doubt that these two towns will be calling me back for some time. After all, I've barely scratched the surface of all they have to offer. I'll be back next time, with a look at some of New Jersey's hidden gems.
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