Since I began writing about the New Jersey food scene, I've struggled with the question of how to report on the rapidly changing world of Oak Tree Road in Iselin. It has the largest South Asian immigrant community in the country and some serious looking food resources, but every time I try to delve more deeply, I get smacked. It's just that things move so fast!
Writing about places while they bask in their fifteen minutes of fame leaves the people who showed up during minute sixteen feeling somehow cheated. So how about a place that has offered consistent quality for many years? Maybe you won't get "sublime" here, but the food is very good, the prices are right, and it's got its own parking lot.
All this leads us to the Desi Galaxy, a typical suburban storefront converted into a series of Asian-style hawker stalls. This is it—the most reliable place for a budget Indian meal in the area and perhaps all of central New Jersey.
Let's take a walk by the stalls and have a few tastes. Entering from Oak Tree Road, and passing the semi-independent storefront of Quality Sweets, your first stop would be Chaska Chat Delight, a great spot for one of my favorite South Indian treats; Samosa Chat. For those of you who've never had it, they cut a samosa open and the cover it with a bunch of sweet and spicy toppings and serve it in a bowl like a sort of Indian flavors sundae. (By the way, if you´re as hooked as I am, you'll find the recipe in my book, A World of Dumplings.)
Next stop is the inside counter for Quality Sweets, where you can pick up some jelabi or gulab juman here for a dessert or breakfast. Punjabi Junction follows and they have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals. Note that their tiny kitchen has its own tandori oven so when you get a tray of curries, don't forget the bread.
A few more steps brings you to Dakshin. Their sign reads "dosa, idly, vada," but here dosas rule. Try the spicy masala dosa, a huge crepe made from fermented lentil flour filled with seasoned mashed potatoes and hot chili peppers. It also comes with a cup of soup and some chutneys on the side. In my opinion, nothing makes a better introduction to Oak Tree Road than a dosa.
Desi Dhaba is the next stop. Here are even more snacks with parathas leading the way. The "paratha sabzi" special is a terrific small meal with two parathas, curries, and pickles. At nine bucks, the "kathyawadi thali" is the most expensive meal at the Galaxy. I just can't bring myself to spend this much money at the place, but it sure sounds good.
If you do an about-face, you'll find yourself at Rimzim, with ice cream, fruit shakes, juices and the biggest bargain on Oak Tree Road: a cup of really good chai tea for a buck. It's the perfect drink to wash down anything and everything sold at every other stall.
Finally, we head to the back where Bombay Spice and Desi Wok hold forth. Bombay Spice specializes in eggs—something I never thought was an important ingredient in Indian food, but their curry of hard boiled eggs taught me otherwise. The menu also lists something called a "masala omelet" that is just as appealing.
Now that your tray is full, grab a table—or at least a seat—among the young families, dating teenagers, senior citizens reading newspapers, and bunches of guys and gals talking technology, real estate and health care. This is the real New Jersey!
1396 Oak Tree Road, Iselin NJ 08830 (map) Open every day, 9 a.m - 10 p.m.
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