As I scan my list of potential and partially written dispatches, I can’t help but notice that about ninety percent of them seem to be in Elizabeth. What is it about that place? It seems a bit rundown, but as our answer to Corona, Queens, it’s got a mighty big role to play in the New Jersey culinary world.
It's there you’ll find Choy Leng, one of New Jersey’s few Chinese-Peruvian places. Peru, with its huge Asian immigrant population, has had its own version of Chinese cuisine for a very long time, making this hybrid restaurant worth exploring.
There are two words you have to know when diving in; “Chifa,” which means “Chinese-Peruvian cuisine,” and “taypa,” the most famous traditional dish (at this Elizabeth outpost, anyway). It’s like your favorite three or four old-school, pre-General Tso’s Chinese-American dishes mixed together—heaven on a plate, if you grew up with suburban Chinese food in the sixties.
Other items that caught my eye included duck soup, chicken with tomatoes, shrimp with fancy noodles (“fideitos Chinos,” in Spanish) and roast duck with Chinese radish. In addition, there’s a menu that reads like a Chinese takeout place in rural Nebraska—chicken with broccoli, shrimps with garlic sauce, and beef lo mein.
Choy Leng also offers a modest Peruvian menu, with seafood and shrimp soups, ceviches, and Peruvian classic Salchipapas (French fries with chopped hot dog). However, if you’re looking for a more traditional Peruvian meal, check out Don Alex Restaurant on the other side of town.
Choy Leng isn’t the only Chinese-Peruvian restaurant. In Paterson, there’s Chifa Jade on Main Street, right at the edge of the Turkish-Arabic strip—yet another mother lode of cheap, wonderful places to eat and shop. (Apparently, nobody in the history of New Jersey has ever thought, “There’s no place to eat around here, I’ll open a Chinese-Peruvian place—they always seem to be near other restaurants.)
Here I ordered Lomo Saltado, an otherwise classic stir-fry with French fries mixed in. What is it about the relationship between Peru and fries? That country has a whole vision of fry that’s completely different than any other. Just as Peruvian was the Chicha Morada—the delicious purple corn drink that came as a beverage choice with lunch specials.
Even more of a surprise than the stir-fried fries was their wonton soup. Yes, I was prepared for the tallarines, the fine round noodles, but the wontons turned out to be first-class Chinese dumplings.
Chifa Jade’s menu lists a whole host of Chinese-Peruvian specialties, using a system of spelling that resembles the Cantonese we saw back in the sixties: Kam Lu Wonton (a fried wonton dish with sweet and sour sauce), Pollo Ti Pac Kay (fried chicken with sweet and sour sauce), Lun Fun Cham Fa (chicken, pork, shrimp and vegetables), and Fun Kin Chon Lon (rolled chicken breast stuffed with shrimp, pork, and asparagus).
These restaurants pose one major problem; they are in neighborhoods so rich with eating possibilities that every meal is tinged with regret. Especially tough for me is the decision between Chifa Jade and Uludag Turkish Grill, right next door.
This New Jersey beat is a real challenge.
Choy Leng 611 Elizabeth Ave, Elizabeth NJ 07206 (map) 908-352-0977
Chifa Jade, aka Jade Garden 927 Main Street, Paterson NJ 07503 (map) 973-279-1333