Destination, Jersey: The Wonderful Turkish Food of Paterson, NJ

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

As a die-hard New Yorker I hate to admit it, but sometimes you gotta go to Jersey.

What does the Garden State have that the Big Apple lacks? For starters, a wealth of space and comparatively affordable housing, two attributes that have helped cities like Edison, Fort Lee, and Newark become home to some of the tri-state area's largest ethnic communities. And where large populations of immigrants go, good food follows—in some cases better than its equivalent offerings in New York.

Take Paterson, a silk factory city that fell into post-industrial decline but is now enjoying a second life thanks to its new middle class. The new blood is eclectic—Paterson is home to Hispanic, Arab, Filipino, Asian, and Turkish populations—and as a result, its food scene is impressively diverse. From Manhattan, getting there takes all of half an hour by car, or an hour on NJ Transit.

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It was the promise of great Turkish cooking that that sent SE designer Tracie and me on a field trip to Paterson. While New York has some great Turkish food if you know where to look, most of it leaves some room for improvement. Could Jersey do us one better?

South Paterson's Turkish sector is far more condensed than New York's, with a tight cluster of restaurants, kebab houses, bakeries, and groceries. Short diversions will take you to late-night diners, WPA-era outdoor markets, and Hispanic stores selling treasures like dirt-cheap key limes and Peruvian pepper paste.

In short: come for an afternoon and you'll find more food than you can handle. Looking for an introduction to the city's Turkish scene? Here's an afternoon itinerary to get you started.

Stop 1: Bread Business

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Begin at Taskin Bakery, which supplies bread both to local restaurants and many of New York's Middle Eastern markets. Turkish cuisine has a bread culture just as rich as the French, and Taskin's wide selection does it proud. On the shelves you'll find flaky croissant-like pastries, syrupy phyllo sweets, briny olive breads, and best of all, simit, crackly-chewy doughnut-shaped breads blitzed with sesame seeds. Fresh from the oven, Taskin's simit are just as good as what you'll find in Istanbul, where they're relished for breakfast much like bagels are in New York.

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Taskin also has a flattop devoted to gozleme, a tissue-thin flatbread stuffed with fillings like cheese, greens, or meat, then folded over on itself to form a neat, floppy pocket. Go for one filled with spinach and cheese and you'll be rewarded with greaseless, feather-light bread, barely wilted fresh greens, and lightly salty cheese. You'll wonder why it's not on every New York street corner.

Stop 2: Lunch Fix

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Just down the street from Taskin you'll find Toros, a mini-chain of three north Jersey Turkish restaurants. This location, which identifies as the Clifton branch (not to be confused with the Paterson branch nearby) is a dark, velvet-drawn room that recalls some Russian oligarch's country home. Befitting of the grand setting is a menu that covers the full range of salads, mezze, and grilled Turkish meat.

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The best time to hit Toros is at lunch, when they offer a three-course lunch special of a soup or salad, your choice of mezze, and a grilled main. Coordinate with your table and you can hack together a shareable feast, all for just $12 a person. Toros does a mean lentil soup, excellent eggplant dishes, and well-seasoned lamb kebabs.

Stop 3: Shopping Trip

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Paterson is full of markets to stock up on Middle Eastern provisions, but AK Market's selection is especially impressive. There's a full compliment of yogurts and cheeses, including hard-to-find nabulsi, a salty semi-soft cheese flavored with nigella seeds, and Istanbuli, a cream-cheese like spread flavored with grassy green chili. Among the dry goods you'll find excellent hazelnuts, especially fresh and aromatic, alongside all manner of other nuts, legumes, grains, and spices available in bulk at low prices.

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AK also has a butcher counter where you'll find homemade sujuk, a pepperoni-like beef or lamb sausage perked up with chili and garlic. While imported sujuk is relatively common in Middle Eastern markets, AK's is better—less fatty and harsh-tasting with a snappy casing and fresh meaty flavor. Slice it up and fry it to serve with eggs, or better yet, use it in place of pepperoni on your next pizza. You'll get great grease cups.

Your Favorites?

Take this tour and you'll have an afternoon of good shopping and eating, but know we're just scratching the surface. Do you have a favorite place to eat and shop in Paterson? Let us know in the comments.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the New York editor and ice cream maker in residence at Serious Eats. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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