Blessed with approximately six weeks between accepting my new job and actually starting my job, I decided in classic Shtetl Fab style to keep busy by embarking on some spectacular adventures. Aside from the usual coffee dates with friends and catching up on my Netflix, I decided to take advantage of my close geographic proximity to some of the most diverse ethnic neighborhoods in America.
I conducted a little research on Wikipedia and made a list of six destinations representing a range of global cuisines and then began the recruitment process as I decided these dining and shopping destinations would be best enjoyed in the company of friends.
A group of nine intrepid souls embarked on our first excursion, which I've dubbed "International Culinary Staycations," this past Friday night in the Middle Eastern/Turkish neighborhood of Paterson, NJ. Some of the people were old friends, others were new acquaintances, but we all had a love of food and tremendous stomach capacity in common.
Our first rendezvous point was Toros Turkish Restaurant off Hazel Street. There we enjoyed a rousing course of appetizers, all of which were vegetarian-friendly and all of which proved quite tasty. I highly recommend the spinach and yogurt hot dish and the cheese-filled sigaria. Coming here with a big group was fantastic as we all shared the different items in tapas fashion. Just as we prepared to leave, a man began to play a sitar in a roped-off casbah area of the beautifully ornate restaurant. It felt really authentic and was just a great way to send us off to our next destination.
Just across the street is Taskin Bakery, which has been supplying traditional Turkish breads and bagels to the Paterson community since 1997. The aroma as you enter this modest bakery is worth the trip alone and our brigade of eaters quickly snapped up pitas, simit (bagels), acma (knish) and borek (savory or mildly sweet pies). Taskin's products can be found at many local restaurants, including Toros, and it's clearly a neighborhood favorite as we encountered many people stocking up for the imminent breaking of the daily Ramadan fast.
Next, we walked about half a mile to the main drag of the Paterson Middle Eastern community, appropriately enough called Main Street. We passed umpteen markets, restaurants, an Islamic fashion center where we all declined trying on the latest hijab styles and even a houkah store. We saw a small group of men praying in a grassy area on the side of the road, my first time encountering such a sight. Meanwhile, our ears were treated to a typically American melting pot of musical styles and we heard everything from an imam's chants to the Notorious B.I.G.
My personal highlight came in the Istanbul Market (931 Main St.) where we encountered an incredibly friendly man. He wanted to know why we had come to Paterson and then he freely gave out advice on the best products and even offered samples of delicious Turkish olives. I asked him how long he'd owned the market and he confessed that he was not the owner, but merely a very loyal customer. You have to love that.
Another market yielded succulent dates, a shuk's worth of spices, drippingly-sweet baklava, cheeses, jewelry and these bizarre candies that tasted like the miscegenated child of M&Ms and chickpeas. One girl balked at buying a water pipe in the aforementioned houkah store and we sallied forth to our final Paterson destination.
As we entered the AlBasha Palestinian/Lebanese restaurant, the nightly breaking of the Ramadan fast was in full force, but luck was on our side and the establishment had a ten-seat table ready and waiting for us. I suppose in these parts, you could call that kismet. Here, we were clearly outsiders as practically the only non-Middle Eastern diners, and while there was a bit of a language gap, it did not dampen the hospitality.
Everyone chose the buffet - apparently a common offering during Ramadan judging by the proliferation of posters advertising "Special Ramadan Buffets" along Main Street - and by some astonishing gastronomic feat, we crammed more food into our already full bellies. The buffet was less vegetarian-friendly, but after so much nibbling and feasting, it hardly mattered. While the food at Toros was more refined and clearly catered to more visitors from outside the neighborhood, but AlBasha offered a glimpse into a typical restaurant where local families go on a regular basis.
Throughout the evening, I marveled at the fortitude of my friends who like me really love food and who like me really love being adventurous in the process. In our all-too-often segregated world, where we allow stereotypes or fear of the unknown to keep us in a behavioral rut, it is amazing to see how food can breakdown barriers and build common ground. I could wax rhapsodic about the incredibly big smile this night put on my face, but the simple fact is that Anthony Bourdain (part of the inspiration for these adventures) has done it far better. There's also a segment on WNYC that similarly cajoled listeners to take their taste buds on a little trip.
If you live in the Tri-State area and want to join our next International Culinary Staycation, please comment with your email and I will add you to the Evite. If you live elsewhere, please start exploring the delicious options in your area today. You won't be disappointed and you probably won't need reservations.