New Jersey's third largest city - founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton, birthplace of comedian Lou Costello, inspiration for poet William Carlos Williams, and high school stomping grounds of NJ Giants' star Victor Cruz - has always been a city of immigrants. Irish, Germans and Jews since the 1800s; Italians and Eastern Europeans since the early 1900s; Syrians, Lebanese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central and South Americans, Africans and South Asians in the decades since; all call the Silk City home.
In other words, Paterson is New Jersey in a nutshell: lots of different people living close together; perfect conditions for really good food. With some of the Garden State's largest Peruvian, Dominican, and Turkish populations , you can find a different ethnic restaurant on practically every corner.
There's no better guide to this ethnic food lovers paradise on the Passaic than Paterson native and Mayor of next door Haledon Borough, Dominick Stampone. Mayor Stampone is an enthusiastic and reliable source of restaurant suggestions for EthnicNJ.com via Twitter. Recently, he invited me and Jersey Bites founder Deborah Smith to join him for an ethnic lunch in Paterson. That's the kind of offer I cannot refuse.
We met in the parking lot of Al Helal Meat & Fish Market, on the corner of East Railway and Crooks Avenues, next to the railroad tracks and the bustling Farmers Market that has supplied fresh ingredients to every wave of Paterson immigrants for eighty years.
Like many of New Jersey's best ethnic food spots, at first glance, Al Helal appears to be just a market. Groceries and housewares are up front. The meat counter in the back is well stocked with fresh beef, lamb and goat. (The market follows Islamic dietary rules, halal, so no pork.) Unlike your local Pathmark, the butchers here proudly display every cut, including tongue, liver, kidney, tripe, tails and feet. The fish counter along the left wall is just as impressive, with at least a dozen varieties of fresh whole fish on ice. I saw red snapper, porgies, sardines, striped bass, pargo, branzino, perch and rainbow trout, among others. Mayor Stampone shared the insider's tip, "Pick a fish, or meat, and they'll grill it for you right here." Fast food as it should be.
Along one wall, to the right of the entrance, an impressive brick-framed grill smokes with hardwood charcoal. Next to the grill spin thwo tall spits of chicken and beef shawerma, a big draw. (One customer told me he comes five days a week just for the sliced meat in a pita.) At the fish counter, Dominick chose a whole Branzino. Deborah picked out some shrimp. The guy at the fish counter gives you your selection in a bucket, and you walk it over to the grill man. Meanwhile, I ventured over to the meat counter for a lamb chop and some homemade lamb sausage. At the grill, I asked for my lamb chop spicy. The grill man worked his magic with a spice rub and direct flame.
A few minutes later, we were handed our perfectly grilled food, atop heaping plates of rice and grilled vegetables. My lamb chop was nicely spiced and still juicy. The sausages had a nice flavor and were perfect scooped up in a fresh pita. Fortunately, I had opened a bottle of ayran, a Turkish yogurt drink (like Persian doogh), which I needed almost immediately to counter the super spicy grilled jalapenos. Domenick's whole Branzino and Deborah's grilled shrimp were equally enticing. As if our lunch plates weren't enough, we also sampled some excellent salads and sides: creamy hummus, flavorful red pepper spread, and a very nice Turkish salad. My entire lunch, including the drink, cost $15.
Mayor Stampone's community pride is contagious. While enjoying our foodie bounty, our conversation covered Paterson history, the virtues of Patsy's pizza, Italian and Irish family traditions, food memories, and of course, dealing with our school-age kids. A steady stream of customers stopped in for groceries, for take out, and for a quick bite at the counter. While many Al Helal customers speak Arabic, many do not, and the counter guys speak English. The market, like most good Jersey ethnic finds, serves the entire community, not just one ethnic group. I couldn't help noticing the Brazilian guarana soda in the drinks case, for example.
Our plates pretty much cleaned, Al Helal turned out to be just the first stop on a mini-tour of Middle Eastern spots in Paterson. Mayor Stampone had two more places in mind.
To reach our second stop, we ventured up Main Street, the heart of Paterson's Middle Eastern community, past numerous Arabic storefronts, to Nablus Sweets & Pastries - a tiny shop serving Middle Eastern cookies and confections. Locals come here for K'nafee, and thanks to our knowledgeable host, so did we. A popular Arabic sweet with origins in the ancient Palestinian city of Nablus, the freshly made K’nafee at Nablus Pastry comes, served warm, in two forms – a round, thin layer of white cheese, covered by a slightly sweet mixture of syrup and semolina, topped with crushed pistachios; or a rectangular version topped with thinly shredded pastry noodles. Unique and very tasty, everyone should try this Middle Eastern specialty.
Squeezing in one more ethnic cuisine, Taskin Bakery was our last stop. This 24-hour operation serves homemade Turkish baked goods from a brick oven. Deb, Dominick and I were all full by now, so we bought a few things to go. My wife and kids enjoyed the spinach and cheese-filled borek - flat squares of thinly layered, flaky yufka (phyllo) dough - for breakfast the next day. Taskin's authentic breads and pistachio baklava also get rave reviews.
It only took a couple of hours in Paterson to sample the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, a Jersey food journey from Palestine to Turkey. The beauty of an ethnically diverse city like Paterson, is that you can just as easily sample delicious Peruvian, Jamaican, Syrian, or Lebanese food. Or score some American ethnic food - a famous Texas Wiener from Libby's Lunch - to eat overlooking the Great Falls, New Jersey's newest National Park.
At each stop, I was stuck by how familiar the Middle Eastern food seems. Trays of colorful cookies at Nablus look like the Italian cookies I ate on holidays growing up. Fresh loaves on the shelves at Taskin smell like any really good New Jersey bakery. The olives and pickled vegetables at Al Helal remind me of an antipasto plate at an Italian-American restaurant. Mediterranean immigrants have a lot in common, no matter the coast they left behind.
Deborah and I thanked Mayor Stampone for sharing a small slice of the rich ethnic diversity of Paterson. We vowed to meet up again soon. As I drove toward the Parkway, I considered the next logical location for an EthnicNJ.com ethnic food tour. Mayor Booker, perhaps?
For more information on the best ethnic restaurants in Paterson and beyond, visit EthnicNJ.com.