Food, Glorious Food: Exploring Middle Eastern and Asian Cuisine in University Heights

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Burgers, fries, pizza, and iceberg lettuce - they're the mainstay of the American collegian diet, and until quite recently the food choices in college dining halls and nearby eateries largely reflected these food habits.

But a diverse campus such as Rutgers requires palate diversity, and food purveyors in and around campus have gotten the message.  If you’ve been raised on the outstanding food traditions of Asia and the Middle East, as have an increasingly large percentage of Rutgers-Newark students, faculty and staff, or are just a fan of these cuisines, you are surely pleased with the changes.

Our editors ventured out and about over recent weeks to sample and report back on the progress of diversity as it relates to lunch and dinner.

Finding Falafel in Newark

Falafel and other Middle Eastern treats are relative newcomers to the campus environs. In the second week of January the area debuted its first restaurant dedicated to these popular foods, Pita Place, at 150 Halsey Street

We stopped there on a particularly chilly winter day to sample as much of the menu that three can share. While it may be unfair to review a restaurant in only its second week of operation, there is much here to recommend, and prices are modest. The popular vegetarian side dishes - hummus, baba ghanouj and tabbouleh salad - were all excellent and very fresh. The falafel was just about perfect - nicely spiced, not greasy, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The meat kabobs were a bit tough and sadly the desserts - baklava and kanafe - were not freshly baked. If this new establishment can work on getting the main door to close properly to keep out the winter chill, and keep all the ingredients fresh, it will do well indeed.

Closer to campus, the University Cafe at University Square (155 University Avenue) offers falafel, gyro and chicken kebab sandwiches and platters. The falafel was acceptable, the beef gyro was nicely seasoned and tender, the chicken kebab less so. Accompaniments of rice, pita bread and (iceberg lettuce) salad were filling if undistinguished.

The falafel/pita sandwhich up the street at 1 Park Bistro, the new and very attractive restaurant at Rutgers Business School (1 Washington Park) was quite good, although it curiously lacked that delightfully drippy tahini sauce. In addition, the Bistro offers a tasty "Mediterranean Masterpiece" sandwich with goat cheese, hummus and veggies, as well as chicken souvlaki and beef gyro. Hardly Middle-Eastern fare, but we found the homemade potato chips to be a great accompaniment to our meals.

Back on Halsey Street, two pleasant eateries offer more Middle-Eastern menu items: an inexpensive hummus snack plate can be ordered at the Art Kitchen (61 Halsey Street), and freshly prepared Greek salad and Mediterranean salad can be had at Harvest Table (27 Halsey Street).

Trekking For Tasty Thai

It comes as no surprise that one of Thailand's national dishes, Pad Thai, is a hit at the House of Thai Cuisine (59 New Street). Their Pad Thai has all the elements you'd expect: stir-fried rice noodles, chicken, shrimp, eggs, scallions, crushed nuts, bean sprouts and more. Add a second side dish of fried rice (the cashew nuts are a nice touch!) and a crispy vegetarian spring roll, and you have a meal fit for a king - all for about $10.