Remembering a Hero (and Eating a Few) on the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail
New Jersey's newest landmark celebrates what the Garden State does best: food
For somebody with hardly any connection to the place, I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to figure out New Jersey. I’ve spent countless hours listening to the Misfits and Bruce Springsteen, or trying to figure out how to be anywhere near as witty as Fran Lebowitz. I’ve read novels by Philip Roth and poems by Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka. I’ve seen every episode of The Sopranos at least twice. And yet I still couldn’t put my finger on it.
That is, until I found myself at Hiram’s in June of 2018. I was at the little roadside joint in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, exactly one week after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. I was there eating hot dogs and drinking beer with my friend Isaac because going to a favorite childhood place of a guy we both admired to find some solace made sense. It was the place Bourdain, who traveled and ate all over the world, from small villages to big cities, said he went to feed his soul.
Exactly one year later, Isaac and I found ourselves at Hiram’s again. This time, I picked at a grilled cheese opposed to a hot dog, burger and fries. With its melted slices of American, the sandwich felt like the safest option considering all the food I’d put in my stomach over the previous 24 hours, as Isaac and I drove the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail, ending where it felt like we’d started a year ago, at Hiram’s.
This wasn’t the first time I made a trip out to my home’s neighboring state. It wasn’t the second, third or even fourth time. I’ve found myself lured to New Jersey to try out a number of restaurants, each of which I’ve been told by locals do particular things better than most places in New York City, and without the glut of tourists and eager locals clamoring to try the latest place on Eater’s Heatmap. First, I had to try out both White Manna in Hackensack and White Mana in Jersey City, two places with similar names that serve small burgers of similar size, but are totally different experiences. Then it was the trip to Clifton for “rippers,” deep fried and topped with homemade relish. Then there was the couple of hours I made a buddy of mine drive with me to White House Subs in Atlantic City, where we skipped the hour-long line and ordered takeout, and finally, the mustard (yes, mustard) pizza at Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, which I will only say was one of the finest pizza experiences I’ve had in a life filled with many slices.
I’ve eaten all over the state, and I’ll say that, overall, there are few places that compete with New Jersey. Gourmet stuff, I couldn’t tell you what the Garden State has; but between burgers, hot dogs, pizza, red-sauce places and sandwiches stuffed with everything imaginable made by the trained experts in the food trucks near Rutgers, yes, I think New Jersey has it all. I’ve eaten all over the country, driven far out of my way to try all kinds of things, and what I’ve learned is that, overall, while some cities might be culinary destinations, New Jersey is the state that has the most to offer throughout.
So the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail, for those brave enough to attempt it, makes perfect sense. Isaac and I decide we can handle it all in a little over a day, driving from Brooklyn starting at 9 on a Saturday and then working our way around.
This is our first mistake. Not checking to see if the first place, Donkey’s Place in Camden, is open on weekends. It isn’t except for the first Saturday of the month, and I am a bit crushed because, honestly, I wanted so badly to try that cheesesteak with fried onions on a poppy seed roll, the one that Bourdain said was even better than the ones you find in nearby Philadelphia. But that was my fault. Nearby Tony & Ruth’s Steaks, on the other hand, is supposed to be open until 1 on Saturdays, but when we roll up at 12:30 in the afternoon, it too is closed.
Camden is a tough city. With one of the highest murder rates in America, there is something about it that became recognizable only later, as we made our way through the state. It’s something you see in places like Hartford or Detroit, where once-thriving cities are all but forgotten. Jobs left, people followed and the state seemingly gave up on the place. The locals don’t give up, though, and the next stop on the trail would prove it. But before that, since our first meal of the day was delayed, we stop in at one of the area’s great institutions, Wawa, to order a small turkey sub and split it in half. The popular chain was never featured on a Bourdain show, but we feel like he’d approve.
We then decide to make our way to Atlantic City, since four of the ten places on the trail are located there. Atlantic City is a hard place to love, but an impossible place to hate. It’s got character. You walk around it for a few minutes and you can tell why everybody wanted to spend time there 50 or 60 years ago. You also can tell that people wanted to turn their backs on it and let it fall to ruin, something Bourdain views with disdain in the episode of Parts Unknown in which he visits the city.
Atlantic City is a place where people go looking for good times, sometimes of the illicit kind. You walk in the casinos and you see all the dead-eyed slot players putting in coin after coin, and your lungs have to adjust to the fact that smoking is allowed indoors. It’s not Las Vegas and it doesn’t have the cool appeal that will lead to a resurgence the way it has in nearby Coney Island over the last few years. But that doesn’t mean it can’t. The bones are there, and the history is as well.
That, and there’s Tony’s Baltimore Grill on Atlantic Ave.
Our server, Roxanne, who has lived her entire life in Atlantic City, tells us that a couple of decades ago there were lines three hours long. Picture bodies standing in the glow of the red neon light waiting to get a cocktail and then one of the massive restaurant’s pizzas, with wise guys sitting next to lounge singers and drunk out-of-towners at the bar, like something out of a Scorsese tracking shot. Roxanne tells us that the meatball is what they’re most famous for, but we don’t end up trying one because we rip through a pie in minutes, half because we’re starving, half because it’s a fine pizza. Nice balance of sauce and cheese, and the crust has a lot of give, but isn’t at all soggy.
We leave and head to the boardwalk, to James Original Salt Water Taffy. Isaac and I both buy about a pound of pre-wrapped taffy, and, spoiler, most of it is gone by the time we get home the next day. It feels like one of the first truly nice weekends, so everybody is out on the boardwalk. It’s pure chaos; the air is thick with cigarette smoke, cigar smoke and weed smoke. There are noises coming from everywhere and people being ushered around by careless rickshaw drivers. It’s a little too much, so we decide on our next move. We know we could do dinner at either of the two remaining places, but decide on a cocktail or two at Knife & Fork Inn, and then a walk to Dock’s Oyster House for the last meal of the night.
Knife & Fork Inn is a charming place that feels just far away enough from the boardwalk, like you’re basically out of Atlantic City. Isaac says it has the sort of upper-middle-class vibe of places he felt like he maybe didn’t totally belong when he lived in San Francisco. I pick up on how much it reminds me of some of the places we dubbed “fancy adult restaurants” when I was growing up in the suburbs.
Opened in 1912, the place has no problem trading on its history as a spot that defied Prohibition, serving liquor openly during the 1920s. As the people who work there will proudly tell you, the real-life Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who Steve Buscemi portrayed on Boardwalk Empire, could routinely be found drinking whiskey at the bar while other nearby spots were being raided. The place was renovated in the aughts, and there is this balance of timelessness mixed with some modern touches.
We order the shrimp cocktail and a couple of massive Martinis. As we take our first sips, an older lady sitting next to Isaac at the bar asks how much the bag of taffy was per pound. We tell her over nine bucks. She laughs and tells us when she worked there years ago, it was 75 cents a pound. You get the feeling that nearly everybody from Knife & Fork is from around Atlantic City, and it gives the place a cozy vibe, far away from the chaos.
After our cocktails, we walk 20 minutes back toward the water and casinos, back to Dock’s Oyster House, which has been operating and owned by the same family since 1897, but feels modern with all of its white subway tile and excellent bar program. The wine list is incredible, the oyster selection is excellent (not surprising, given the name), and I make a note that “When they ask if you want bread they don’t bring you a basket of crust baguettes: they bring you one delicious-ass roll.” I have the mussels with broccoli rabe and mashed potatoes, while Isaac gets the flounder, shrimp and crab cake fish fry. All that, and there’s a piano man out of a Billy Joel song from the 1970s playing all the hits from yesteryear, with a great big fishbowl you should definitely toss a few singles into.
We wake up early the next day and make our way to Lucille’s Country Cooking in the Pine Barrens. This, to me, is the highlight of the trip. It’s a little diner off the beaten path where everybody seems to know each other, and if they don’t know you, they go out of their way to fix that. The omelets could feed a small family, and I think because of the location, in the part of the state where the Jersey Devil is said to live, there is an East-Coast-meets-Twin-Peaks vibe to the place. The staff is genuinely friendly, and although Lucille passed away in 2016, when her daughter Karen sees me eyeballing all of the Bourdain-related clippings on the wall, she starts chatting me up about the Food Trail and the man himself. She recalls how well her mother and Bourdain got along, saying they seemed like kindred spirits. One of the locals who stops in a few times a week tells me he thinks having a Food Trail that leads through their neck of the woods will only be a good thing.
When we get out of Lucille’s, it’s a little after 10. We have to make an executive decision: Kubel’s, the next closest thing on the list, is open at 12. We have two other stop beyond it, so we decide that the place Bourdain and his family frequented when they visited the Shore would have to wait for another time. Instead, we make our way up to Asbury Park, Springsteen blasting the entire way, and get one sub to split between the two of us. We go with roast beef. Isaac worries that one small sub won’t be enough for two of us, but having had my share of subs from classic Italian sandwich spots, I assure him that it will be plenty. I’m happy to report I was correct, and also glad to note that eating a a sub for a second breakfast while sitting in the grass on a sunny day in Asbury Park is pretty much perfection.
As we finish our sub in the shadow of the Asbury Park Convention Hall, it finally dawns on me that while I don’t exactly know how much time Bourdain and his crew spent taping an episode, we’d just done six spots in almost 24 hours, and driven a few hundred miles. I imagine that episodes didn’t take that long to film, but the small amount of time we had to try so many restaurants is somewhat grueling, and I’m feeling better and better about my decision to skip one of the places.
Finally, around noon, we make it back to the end of the Trail, to the place where it all started for us exactly 365 days earlier. I had mentioned to Isaac that, totally by coincidence, it was a year to the day we last ate at Hiram’s. I don’t know if that’s some cosmic thing or just pure circumstance. We sit there contemplating everything we’ve seen over the last day, eating our hot dog and grilled cheese, not really saying much of anything, and I realize I’ve been so busy taking notes, trying to remember the faces and enjoy the food, that I really haven’t had a moment to think about what we’ve been doing and the man for whom we are doing it.
Bourdain was a hero of mine. I don’t go around tossing that tag very often, but it’s true. I found myself at Hiram’s with my friend exactly a year earlier because I believe food can heal what hurts you. Now there for a second time, I am a little more reflective than I’d been on my previous visit. I think about everything I’ve eaten over the last 24 hours, as well as the cleanse I’m going to have to embark on as soon as I get home. But I also think a lot about Bourdain, how much this state meant to him despite leaving it the first chance he got. Most of all, I think about what keeps bringing me back to New Jersey, a state I really have no reason to visit: food. It’s just a damn good place to eat, and I could think of no better way to celebrate one of its more famous residents than with a road trip eating at all his favorite places.
We finish our food at Hiram’s and it dawns on me that we’ve done the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail all wrong. Sure, the point is to highlight some of his home state’s sports that he featured on his show. But would Bourdain himself want you to stick to that sort of routine? I get the feeling the answer is no. He’d probably tell you, sure, if you have a car and want breakfast at Lucille’s or a pizza in Atlantic City, then go for it. But if you’re going to make a day of it, go off the beaten path. Explore a little, discover new places, people and food on your own. Because whether you’re in New Jersey or anywhere else in the world, that’s what Bourdain did so well and that’s the best way to celebrate him.
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