While this column has explored the Indian community on Oak Tree Road in Iselin and the Korean world of Bergen County, we've have all but ignored what may be the state's most famous food neighborhood—The Ironbound.
The Ironbound first became famous as the New York area's largest enclave of Portuguese immigrants. This gave it a strongly Latin European flavor that brought forth a whole bunch of restaurants, cafes, and grocery shops. After the jump, a few small shops, a cafe, and a restaurant.
When you get to Newark Penn Station, just walk down Ferry Street, or "Portugal Avenue." At one time, the area's most important businesses were here. While many have moved a few blocks away, there are still quite a few worth a stop. Lisbon Wine and Liquor at 114 Ferry Street has over 300 Portuguese wines including, on the day I visited, fourteen kinds of vinho verde, and a huge selection of port and grappa. Also worth checking out are the housewares—stores that offer everything from hardware to gifts and have large sections of good kitchenware at reasonable prices. Check out Lopes and Sons at 98 Ferry for cooking gear and classic charcoal grills.
Ferry Street is known for its mega-Iberian restaurants with hundreds of seats and a perennial air of festivity. What I wanted, though, was a traditional Portuguese plate lunch—and I got it at Katekero, a small café and restaurant right off Ferry Street. When I walked in at five to noon, there was a crowd clustered around the bar watching the chef write the specials of the day on the board.
We all placed our orders (I had shrimp with garlic sauce) and while most of the customers went out for a smoke, the tables were set and cooking began. Soon the meals came out, classic Portuguese dishes sided with rice and fries and we all got down to the serious business of lunch. (Whole meals are in the $10.00 to $13.00 range.) Huge platters were served, and I almost felt like a traitor when I skipped dessert.
My next stop was Popular Fish, one of those fish stores that excels because of its lack of selection. You are limited to what's available in great condition at a reasonable price. Yes, there is fresh fish, but that's not what will impress you; what will leave you absolutely stunned is the quality and variety of bacalhau, or salt cod. Whole fish, fillets, and those little bits and pieces are for sale here. Not on the side or in a corner, but center stage where they belong. A reminder that not so long ago, this was an important staple food.
Stupefied from my huge lunch and exhausted from trying to associate all the different kinds of bacalhau with actual recipes, I decided to hit a coffee shop and headed for the Daily Bread Bakery at 121 Ferry Street. Here I had a double espresso and the legendary Portuguese sweet called "Molotof;" a sort of cake/pudding made from egg whites and caramel. For one last moment, I was in Portugal.
Is something missing here? In Portugal you'll find amazing cured pork products and while there are artisan butchers working in the Ironbound, they're a bit off the beaten path. That's a matter for another day.
Note: Be aware that the Ironbound is one tough place to park. If you can come by public transit, seize the chance. It's a quick walk from Newark's Penn Station where you can catch Amtrak, PATH, Light Rail and NJ Transit.
Katekero Cafe & Restaurant
77 Jefferson Street, Newark NJ 07105 (map)
129 Ferry Street, Newark NJ 07105 (map)
Daily Bread Bakery
121 Ferry Street, Newark NJ 07105 (map)