Hudson County is no exception, as this local melting pot is overflowing with all sorts of eccentric and exotic dining options. (Please see sidebar for our picks and locations.)
For some of the oddest finds, read on!
One wacky menu
Combine all of the different dishes served up in Hudson County's hottest restaurants and you would get one wacky menu: Salty seafood lovers might start with LITM's baby octopus appetizer, and carnivores could try O'Connells' short-ribs-stuffed edible cigars - that come complete in their own cigar box.
For a taste that is anything but ordinary, you might try a slice of Napoli's clam pizza or a plate of Lola's Tapas' black rice (black because it is cooked in squid ink).
Meat-eaters could try a plate of El Flamboyan's pig's feet, or a bowl of their oxtail stew, and vegetarians could go with Cucharamama's grilled pineapple and pumpkin salad.
Those with a sweet tooth could top it all off with Nine's signature cheesecake lollipops.
Food, like fashion, follows trends. A few years ago, everyone was loco for tapas. Then came the cupcake craze. Next, pomegranate seeds started showing up in everything from salads to drinks, and, on the bar scene, people are still recovering from the Martini madness that has overtaken area drink menus.
This year, ceviche is one of the industry's hottest appetizer trends, and local chefs have put their own unique spin on the cured fish dish.
Usually served in a martini glass, this citrus-marinated chopped seafood mix is served raw and is a refreshing alternative to the traditional seafood salad.
The main ingredients of ceviche are lime, cilantro and fish. Different countries and different chefs tailor it to their liking, often incorporating shrimp, octopus or clams into the mix.
Both Chile and Peru claim to be the country of origin of the dish, which is also served in other Latin American countries such as Cuba and Panama. It is also a mainstay of many Mexican menus, often served with tortilla chips.
The dish rose to popularity in the United States with the Latin fusion food craze, and since then, many restaurants have incorporated it into their menus.
In Hoboken, Lua features four different types of ceviche: shrimp, tuna, crab, and lobster. Each is served with a unique marinade, incorporating Caribbean ingredients such as coconut and passion fruit.
Customers seeking the more traditional version can head over to Cucharamama to sample their "Cebiche de Pescado Trujillano," which uses Peruvian ingredients such as corn and white fish.
New flavors for old favorites
Thai flavors are another fusion fad spicing up local menus. Rich Allen, the Executive Chef at Busker's Bar and Grill, also in Hoboken, has created two signature plates that he describes as "Asian dishes with American flair:"
The coconut grilled shrimp appetizer features shrimp marinated in coconut and Thai chili sauce, laid atop a bed of Japanese soba noodles and baby spinach. The sweet and spicy dish is served cold, and Allen said it is perfect for spring and summer.
The sweet Thai chili beef appetizer is another Eastern-influenced dish on Allen's menu. The thinly-sliced hanger steak is stewed in a sesame oil and brown sugar sauce, and then spiced up with sweet Thai chili sauce. It is served with sliced vegetables to lighten up the heavier beef dish.
"I like to take some of the old and some of the new and put my own spin on it," Allen said.
A self-proclaimed heavier, food fan, ("If it was up to me, butter would go with everything," he said), Allen has been working with Busker's owner Maura Hession to lighten up the menu.
The chili beef and coconut grilled shrimp are two of the dishes that will be featured on the new, lighter menu, which Hession said would debut within the coming weeks. Allen said he wished more restaurants would change their menu along with the seasons, the way they do at Busker's.
"Food changes all the time," Allen said. "I wish more people would [change their menus]. That gives people a chance to try different things."
Pizza lovers tired of plain pies, can try something different at Napoli pizzeria in Hoboken: a clam pie. And as unusual as a clam pizza may seem, owner Frank Volpe says it is a customer favorite.
"A lot of people order it. I would say it's one of our best-selling pies," he said of the white pizza, made with olive oil, garlic, black pepper and top-neck clams.
Volpe, whose family owns Lombardi's pizzeria, which claims to be New York's original pizzeria, said that a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut originated the clam pie, and Lombardi's then made it big in New York. He hopes to do the same for Hoboken.
So what is the appeal?
"It's different," Volpe said. "A lot of pizzerias don't have it."
Food for thought
At O'Connell's on Montgomery Avenue in Jersey City, pub owner Padraig Hennessy has cashed in on the recent cigar craze, serving them up as appetizers to his diners.
But he is not violating New Jersey's non-smoking ordinances, as these cigars are for eating.
The "O'Connell's Edible Cigar" is similar to a spring roll - dough filled with either pork, short ribs, or crab and shrimp, served on a bed of lettuce, with a special dipping sauce - and in a cigar box.
"Sometimes it works with us and sometimes it works against us," Hennessy said, explaining that the strong anti-smoking sentiment sometimes turns people off to the name of the dish.
But it also attracts attention.
"People are intrigued and interested," Hennessy said. "A lot of people want to order it because they want to see it."
Hennessy explained that the fact that the food is served in a cigar box throws many customers off. "People look and say, 'are there really cigars in there?!'"
He said that the look on customers' faces when they are served an appetizer in a cigar box is always fun. He re-enacts customers' reactions, looking down at the cigar box, and then back up, with his eyes open wide, "What the hell is that?"
Hennessy, who has lived between Hoboken and Jersey City for over twenty years, is a bit of a cigar connoisseur. "I've been known to smoke a couple on the golf course," he admits. He has a friend who is a cigar exporter in Colombia who supplies him with the boxes for the appetizer dish. And the tobacco-timid should not be alarmed: these boxes never contained actual cigars.
So what is the best way to eat the app?
"Pick it up with your hand," Hennessy advised, adding that it is probably the only dish served in his dining room that he encourages customers to eat with their hands.
Sweetening the deal
Fruit is another popular trend, turning up in all sorts of different dishes, from sushi rolls to salads. Komegashi Too in Jersey City sweetens things up on one if its eel rolls by adding fruit - banana to be exact. The spicy banana mama roll has banana, eel, avocado and spicy sauce on the inside, with black sesame seeds and tobiko on the outside.
At Trinity in Hoboken, diners who want a fruitier, more colorful salad can try the green apple, red beet, manchego (a Spanish cheese from the La Mancha region) and fennel salad.
And at Cucharamama, the grilled pineapple and pumpkin salad passes up on the usual vegetables.
For those with a real sweet tooth, chocolate covered fruit is on the dessert menu at Nine, Hoboken's Frozen Monkey Café, and The Magic Pot Fondue Bistro in Edgewater, where all three establishments feature different types of fondue.
For diners who only want a small bite of a rich dessert, or want to grab it and go, Nine's cheesecake lollipops make for a moveable feast.
Comments on this piece can be sent to: Mfriedman@hudsonreporter.com. FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Where to find exotic foods to stimulate the mind and tickle the taste buds:
Cucharamama, 233 Clinton St., Hoboken. Call (201) 420-1700 for reservations.
El Flamboyan, 1000 Willow Ave., Hoboken. Call (201) 653-5567 for reservations.
Frozen Monkey Café, 526 Washington St., Hoboken. Call (201) 222-1311 for information.
Komegashi Too, 99 Pavonia Ave., Jersey City. Call (201) 533-8888 for reservations.
LITM, 140 Newark Ave., Jersey City. Call (201) 536-5557 for reservations.
Lola's Tapas, 153 14th St., Hoboken. Call (201) 420.6069 for reservations.
Lua, 1300 Sinatra Dr. North, Hoboken. Call (201) 876.1900 for reservations.
The Magic Pot Fondue Bistro, 934 River Road, Edgewater. Call (201) 969-8005 for reservations.
Napoli's Pizzeria, 1118 Washington St., Hoboken. Call (201) 216-0900 for information.
Nine, 333 Washington St., Hoboken. Call (201) 795-9899 for reservations.
O'Connell's Bar and Grill, 111 Montgomery Ave., Jersey City. Call (201) 333-3633 for reservations.
Trinity, 306 Sinatra Dr., Hoboken. Call (201) 533-4446 for reservations.