While home to a variety of ethnic cuisines, Bergen County boasts some of the best Asian food this side of the Atlantic. From Korean to Thai, family-owned authentic cuisine can be found in every corner of our community. Authentic is a descriptor often over-used but in the case of the restaurants highlighted below, its based on recipes handed down from generation to generation. A perfectly spiced meal can prove to be just as atmospheric and transporting as the nights markets of Seoul or the crystal blue waters of Thailand. The right meal can take one on a panoptic voyage without ever leaving the confines of the dinner table.
So Moon Nan Jip
For some of the very best in Korean BBQ, look no further than So Moon Nan Jip, located at 238 Broad Ave in Palisades Park. What makes this place special is the coal-fueled grills installed at each table, making each meal a fresh and personal experience. Great energy and even better service takes the atmosphere to a new level. The authentic cuisine is on-point, highlighting their Kalbi dishes, a variety of gui or grilled dishes, made with pork short ribs or marinated beef served in a ganjang-based sauce. Other notable offerings include the Cha Dol Bae Gi, a thinly sliced brisket dish, as well as some of the best Kim Chi Jigae in the area. Choose from a wide selection of banchan, or small side dishes of food, making So Moon perfect for both large party gatherings or a unique date night. Tap off a night of good food and conversation with a quintessential glass of Soju.
Soju, a distilled alcoholic beverage traditionally made of rice, wheat or barley, is touted as Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Drinking Soju is so engrained into the Korean culture that its ritual consumption comes with its own strict rules of etiquette. The first rule is that one never pours their own beverage and in turn takes the responsibility of filling their companion’s glasses as needed. Next, when a glass is filled it must be held with two hands, a motion of respect universally accepted in the culture. The final rule is to turn away to drink when in the presence of an elder or someone of a higher class.
Pho Thai Lao Kitchen
Family-owned and operated Pho Thai Lao Kitchen found at 219 Maywood Avenue in Maywood, offers a diverse mix of Thai-Lao dishes with touches of Vietnamese influence. The menu is a literal marriage of the two cuisines, inspired by the owners Thai and Laos born parents. The interior represents both cultures, one wall representing Thailand and the other Laos, with the seating area in center representative of Mekong River and its floating markets of food. The real magic comes from the surprising combination of ingredients served up. Who knew scallions, sugar, coconut could work so well together?
Bring an adventurous palette on your first visit, be open to new sensations and heavy dose of spice. In fact, Pho Thai warns diners against the intense heat their dishes can pack, suggesting a spice on the side alternative for the feint of heart. Cozy interiors and helpful staff are available on hand to guide you through the daring menu. Items to check out are the Lao fresh rolls, Pad Kaprow and Kanom Krok for dessert. Kanom Krok is traditionally a Thai street food, made of rice and coconuts. When cooked well, the surprisingly sweet dish is golden brown and crispy on the outside like a delicate bun and soft and treacly on the inside.
If noodles are more your style check in to Menya Sandaime at 1638 Parker Avenue in Fort Lee. This little gem packs a punch with its Japanese-inspired ramen menu. Homemade on premises, an act you can witness as you walk in. The inside is narrow but cozy, more indicative of an intimate evening than a large get together. Despite its size and popularity, wait time is always reasonable.
A somewhat limited menu, proving that its better to be a master of a few dishes than being second-rate at all of them. Their signature dish is tonkotsu ramen, made in a thick, creamy and nearly transparent color that is the penultimate in ramen soup. Tonkotsu is made from pork marrow bones that have been boiled down for hours. The lengthy process is required in order to break down the fat, marrow and collagen, releasing the creamy, white liquid that makes its so delicious. Other must-haves include their fluffy gyoza dumplings. Moon-shaped and thinly rolled in dough, these pan-friend delicacies are stuffed with ground meat and vegetable fillings.
Mama Finas House of Sisig
For lovers of the sour and the exotic, Mama Finas House of Sisig in Elmwood Park is a great place to start. Sisig, a Kapampangan term which means “to snack on something sour,” often refers to dishes made with parts of a pig’s head and liver. A must try is their pork sisig, crispy pork bits with chopped red onions served on a sizzling cast iron skillet with garlic rice. Other notable dishes include bistek (seasoned and tenderized steak), lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and kare-kare (oxtail stew in a thick peanut sauce). Their pusit (squid) sisig is another fan favorite, high in flavor and crunch. Simple, small and cash-only, what Mama Finas lacks in accoutrement in more than makes up for in authenticity.
Regardless if you choose a restaurant from our list or one of the other great Asian spots in the area, the key is to be daring in your choices. If authentic is your goal, ditch the main menu and go straight for the recommended specials. Don’t choose interior design over quality, some of the best meals are served in the simplest of atmospheres. If the line is to long, move on. Better to skip the Yelp hotspots and discover your own hidden gem, than waste time vying for a table. Above all enjoy the journey and expand your taste buds.
Corinne Casella is a Jersey City-based writer and editor specializing in color features, reviews and first-person narratives. She has over ten years of professional experience and her work has been featured in the The Huffington Post and Elephant Journal.