If the average New Jerseyan took a DNA test, they’d be 99 percent bagels, pizza, hot dogs and Taylor ham — or pork roll, depending on where you live. Because there are few things New Jersey loves more than its food.
And every self-respecting Garden State resident knows exactly which restaurants are synonymous with our iconic dishes. Cheesesteaks from Donkey’s Place in Camden. Cheeseburgers from White Manna in Hackensack, or White Mana Jersey City. Creamsicle soft serve from Kohr’s Bros. across the Jersey Shore.
But real New Jersey foodies know to think beyond the obvious, and how to order more than just the main draws at New Jersey’s beloved eateries. These aren’t necessarily “secret” menu items, but they are certainly overlooked foods that you only come to know through years and years of eating at these cherished haunts. They’re the dishes only the locals and real food fiends know about, and are sure to tag onto your order to make sure you get a taste of the overlooked.
Here are the 10 best “locals only” orders in New Jersey.
Spaghetti with oil and garlic with hot peppers, Belmont Tavern, Belleville
Belmont Tavern was No. 6 on NJ.com’s list of best Italian restaurants in New Jersey, and its chicken savoy was No. 1 on NJ.com’s list of best Italian dishes. The dimly lit wood-paneled Essex County culinary cornerstone is also known for its “shrimp beep,” lightly breaded shrimp in a spicy red sauce. But those in the know never forget to order the spaghetti with oil and garlic with hot peppers, even if it’s far less heralded. Delectably simple, deliciously spicy (without overpowering) it is just as essential to a Belmont Tavern experience as the better-known menu items. The beauty of truly great Italian food is derived from its simplicity and minimalism, and that’s precisely what makes this dish shine.
Cheeseburger, Holsten’s, Bloomfield
Tony Soprano had his last meal in Holsten’s, emphatically featuring onion rings — “best in the state, far as I’m concerned,” James Gandolfini proclaimed before popping one in his mouth in the final scene of “Sopranos.” While Essex County natives were thrilled to see their favorite ice cream shop featured in such an essential New Jersey television series, most were left scratching their head at the onion ring reference. Of all the things Holsten’s is known for, onion rings aren’t one of them! Duster sundaes, milkshakes and floats? Sure, this is NJ.com’s No. 1 ice cream shop, so no surprise there. Onion rings? Not so much. But real Holsten’s heads know the best non-ice cream item at the Broad Street staple isn’t fried, it’s grilled. The cheeseburger at Holsten’s is a beefy, cheesy masterclass. A no-frills burger with your choice of cheese (don’t overthink it, get American) and loads of pickles. Lettuce and tomato are on the side if you’re feeling fancy, but a touch of ketchup is all you need to enjoy this beauty. Get onion rings on the side if you want (the French fries are better, just saying) but the burger is the real savory star at Holsten’s.
Roast duck , Rutt’s Hut, Clifton
The mark of a true Rutt’s Hut veteran? Ordering the roast Long Island duckling with orange sauce. Yes, Rutt’s Hut duck. Your waiter will warn you it takes a while, especially compared to how quickly they whip up their deep-fried dogs. But it’s worth the wait; just have a ripper as an appetizer. The duck comes out glistening with orange sauce, orange slices and maraschino cherries. Crispy and gamey, the dish comes bone-in — don’t be afraid to pick up a drumstick and start gnawing. Wash it down with a Marvis (Yahoo soda) and you’ve officially join the ranks of Rutt’s Hut real ones.
1960s pie, Santillo’s, Elizabeth
Intimidated by the menu at Santillo’s? We can’t blame you. The Union County institution serves more than 20 different styles of pizza — most of them named and dated for their heydays. The 1964 pie, topped with mozzarella and salt, sharp Pecorino Romano, is the shop’s standard. Al Santillo’s Sicilian pie is so good it came in at No. 2 on NJ.com’s list of the 99 best pizzas in New Jersey. But the most underrated pizza Al makes is his 1960s pie. Round and doughier with more sauce than cheese, it feels more conventional than his other unique creations. Its a divinely delicious showcase for Santillo’s malty dough and rich, savory sauce.
Virginia ham special, Fiore’s, Hoboken
Fiore’s roast beef special might be the most vaunted sandwich in New Jersey. Not just because NJ.com named it the top sandwich in the state, but because the gravy-soaked beauty is only available on Thursday and Saturday. Lines get insane on those days, but thankfully are shorter on Mondays when the Hoboken shop sells its Virginia ham sandwich. Delectably tender and flavorful Virginia ham, pairs nicely with Fiore’s famous mozzarella. That alone would be worth making the trip to the Square Mile City. But when they top the sandwich with their special honey mustard gravy? Not something one would expect to come from an Italian deli, but who cares. The sweet and savory stuff takes the sandwich to a whole new level of delicious. It’s unlike any ham sandwich you will find in New Jersey.
Cheesesteak, Beyond Pita, Montclair
Beyond Pita came in at No. 5 on NJ.com’s list of best Montclair restaurants for a reason. The Church Street cash-only hole in the wall serves up some of the best Mediterranean food in the country. I’ve been to Israel, none of the falafel I ate there came close to Beyond Pita’s crispy yet fluffy excellence. The chicken shawarma is terrific as well. The menu item that goes most overlooked here, though? The cheesesteak. Yes, a Mediterranean restaurant makes Philadelphia’s signature sandwich with aplomb. The steak is imbued with a blend of spices that give it a mouth-watering herbaceous kick, a flavor unlike any steak you’ve ever had. The addition of potatoes to the mix add a soft texture and even more flavor to the sandwich. Peppers and onions are included as well — far from unconventional, but delicious nonetheless. Don’t think, just order.
Turkey sandwich, Hobby’s Deli, Newark
Hobby’s is New Jersey’s premier Jewish deli. The pastrami, corned beef, matzo ball soup and latkes here are simply unmatched. Everyone will tell you so, and everyone is right. But not everyone will tell you about the sandwich that is sneakily a must-order from the shop that the Brummer family has run since 1962. The turkey sandwich. It’s so simple that you might overlook it. I implore you not to, because Hobby’s brings the same excellence from its better-known sandwiches to this staple. The turkey is freshly carved off the bone, with both white and dark meat featured to create a dynamic flavor profile. Russian dressing and coleslaw are optional, but make the sandwich even better. Don’t forget the pickle, either!
Secret sauce wings, Krug’s Tavern, Newark
Everyone knows Krug’s Tavern makes some of the best burgers in the state. The Ironbound bar, which has been open since 1932, has won countless awards for its thick, beefy tavern-style burger. And it deserves them all. But you deserve to try the wings here, too, which deserve accolades of their own. The wings themselves are plump, meaty and crispy. But it’s the “secret sauce” that makes them a must-order — even if your waiter will be happy to ruin the secret. It’s a combination of buffalo and scampi sauce that makes for a uniquely spicy, citrusy wing you won’t find anywhere else. The sauce is so good you’ll be dipping whatever you can get your hands on in the dregs at the bottom of the bowl.
Thick crust pie, Star Tavern, Orange
It’s the dish that inspired this list. Star Tavern is known as the king of all bar pies. The Essex County legend’s thin, crispy pizzas are truly the best iteration of the style, and people travel from far and wide to eat them. So it doesn’t surprise me when people look at me like I’m a pizza pauper when I suggest they try the thick crust pie at Star. It sounds counterintuitive, maybe even crazy. But stick with me on this one. Because the thick crust at Star Tavern is still thinner than your average pizza. But that little added dough adds a sturdiness and structure to the pie that helps it take on toppings way better than the classic crust while still maintaining a crispy texture. It also travels much better than the OG pie, which frankly needs to be eaten on-site for the true experience. Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t get just the thick crust pie. But add one into your next order (with sausage and hot peppers if you’re looking for the best topping combination) and thank me later.
Caesar salad, Kinchley’s Tavern, Ramsey
If you grew up in North Jersey going somewhere other than Star Tavern for bar pies, chances are you were heading way up north to Kinchley’s. The first stop on the NJ.com Pizza Trail, owner George Margolis claims that Kinchley’s invented the thin-crust bar pie style in New Jersey. You can question its origins, but you can’t question that it’s great pizza. But for the true Kinchley’s experience, you need to order the Caesar salad — partially for the salad itself, but mostly for the homemade Caesar dressing that is the perfect compliment for the thin-crust pizza. No, I’m not condoning dousing a slice of pizza with salad dressing, but the supremely creamy stuff is ideal for dipping your crust (and fine, maybe the tip of the slice) into. Even if you aren’t a Caesar salad fan, chances are you will love this one.
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