Growing up in South Jersey, I pretty much took the whole eating local thing for granted. I mean, we had an embarrassment of riches to choose from: excellent milk from a the local dairy, garden fresh produce from my grandpop’s back yard or local roadside farm markets, fresh seafood from the Delaware Bay or the ocean. The Jersey Fresh motto encompasses everything that growing up in Cumberland County meant. The city I was born (Vineland) was named that by its founder because of how well grapes grew in our soil and climate. One of our claims to fame is that Thomas Welch himself started making grape juice a block or so away from our main drag. We have some of the best pasta ever (Conte’s is a favorite of mine), wineries, and more. The point is, growing up in South Jersey during the time I did meant Jersey tomatoes, blue crabs from the Bay, ethnic influence from Italy and Puerto Rico, and the cuisine of the area reflected that. That’s why on my last visit back, I was pleasantly surprised to find someone putting out awesome food in a small kitchen tucked away in the back corner of a newly opened public market.
The chef in charge of the operation, Lurie Luciano, had similar experiences growing up – we’re fairly close in age, both have many of the same childhood food memories, both let ourselves go out into the world to explore and learn new things (in her case, to New Orleans, where she fine-tuned her culinary skills – in mine, to Columbus, where I started getting adventurous in my eating and taught myself how to cook). We both share similar food philosophies now, and both of us find ourselves drawn to the city where it all began.
To her, returning to South Jersey meant being the first person on board to occupy the new public market (more on that in a separate post – let’s just say for the moment that Luciano’s FreshMarket is the shining star of the place, by far). It means crafting a new menu each week based on what’s seasonal, what’s fresh, what inspires her. She, for the most part, keeps the preparation simple. When you’re working with the best quality of everything, it doesn’t take much to let the ingredients shine. She’s extremely skilled at coaxing out the inherent flavors of the dish, preferring to not drown it out in sauces, heavy seasonings that overwhelm the senses, or the like (which I find is done way too often in Cajun and Creole influenced cuisine). She releases a new menu weekly – here’s the menu from the week I visited in March:
Still, even with the printed menu, be sure to check the menu board, where you can sometimes find additional specials. Prices are quite reasonable for the quantity and quality of the food.
We went over the course of two days. I was so impressed the first day that I grabbed my dad and took him with me on the second. Even though he lives in Jersey, he wasn’t aware of its existence. I was lucky to stumble across it at all – I wish it were more visible from the street so that more people would try it out. Once you taste her food, you can’t help but be a convert.
The salmon cakes were solid – reminds me of something I would whip up myself when in the need for comfort food. The sweet potato fries were out of this world, especially when dipped in her remoulade. Together they made my mouth a very happy place. The slaw didn’t stand out to me, but then again I’m not much of a slaw person, so it’s a matter of personal preference.
The gumbo was full of flavor, built on obvious care in making the roux. I was expecting it to be spicy hot, but it wasn’t – the flavor was quite nuanced with obvious infusion of the trinity. With shreds of chicken throughout, and on top of rice, it was a hearty meal unto itself. Considering it was still quite cold and late winter, it was the kind of stick-to-your-ribs warmth needed to give you the push to face the mad dash to the car in the cold. With the weather tending toward cold again with fall setting in, it’s a perfect choice whenever you see it on the menu.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Catfish Po-Boys – hers is a little different than those I have had locally here in Ohio, being topped with a nice crunchy slaw rather than lettuce and tomatoes. The catfish was fried to perfection – flaky and tender and not even a little bit greasy. The remoulade, slathered thickly on the uber-fresh bread, tied the whole sandwich together. The portion was quite generous, with the catfish literally spilling out of the confines of the roll. One of the best examples of the sandwich that I’ve ever had. I still crave this regularly, even 6 months later.
My dad got the Fried Shrimp Po-Boy, which is a similar take on the sandwich but with shrimp rather than catfish. My dad gave me a taste, and it too was cooked to perfection. Shrimp is very easy to overcook, especially when fried, but her expert hand at cooking seafood means that she nailed this one as well.
I was too stuffed to eat the Crab Cake Po-Boy while I was still there, and ate it later in my hotel room. Even cold, it was pretty darn good. I tend to prefer my crab cakes sautéed rather than breaded and deep fried, but even with that in mind I still enjoyed this one immensely.
Along with some more sweet potato fries, we got a crawfish pie – it was a nice small bite, with a bit of heat – an afterthought, really. Thought at the time it would make a great mid-afternoon snack.
I also enjoyed the Ahi Tuna Melt, which was seared earlier, and then sliced and topped with cheese that was then melted on top – technically, this ends up cooking the tuna through – but not the kind of through that dries it out and makes it difficult to eat. The texture was still spot on, as was the flavor. Since it used a bun rather than the rolls that are used with the Po-Boy’s, the balance of bread to fish was just right.
I really wish my visit to Jersey had been longer, or that I had discovered it earlier in my trip. If I still lived in Jersey, I’d have likely turned into a regular. I’m on her mailing list, where she sends out the weekly menus, and torture myself regularly reading about delicious stuff that I’d have to drive 10 hours each way to get. But alas, it’s not to be.
There was an article earlier this week in my hometown newspaper, about how she’s not renewing her lease with the market when it expires at the end of the year. Given the circumstances (more about that in the post about the Marketplace – way too complex an issue to get into right this second), I would probably do the same thing, but I’m still sad to see her go. I have no doubt she’ll land squarely on her feet and will be off and running once she finds the right location, but you still have a couple of months left to give this place a try while it’s the same concept in the same location. Trust me when I say it’s worth the trip even if that’s your sole purpose for going there. It’s a bit of bright light in a corner of Vineland that people unfortunately write off because of preconceived notions. Once you try it, if you like it, let Lurie know. You can’t miss her – she’s the redhead at the counter with infectious smile and passion for all things local. Personally, I’d love to see her do a food truck of some sort in the interim – I think it would be a great match with the nature of the food she puts out. And be sure to keep an eye on her website – she posts regular menu updates and gives other pertinent info about hours and special events. I hear the lobster pot pies this week are to die for.