ASBURY PARK — “Bruce is friends with the owner and comes here sometimes.”
It’s the kind of casual Boss name-dropping a visitor still hears frequently in Asbury Park. In front of the famed Stone Pony rock club. At a sushi meal at Taka across Cookman Avenue from the now-closed Upstage Club, where Springsteen wrote his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. Even at an art gallery owned by rock photographer Danny Clinch attached to the chic Asbury Hotel, where a manager in the hallway told me exactly that.
Bruce is the patron saint of this beach town and has been an enduring symbol of its blue-collar grit since the beginning of Asbury’s decades-long decline that started in the 1970s. Now, in the midst of Asbury’s current resurgence, the rock-and-roll spirit he forged still defines so much of its culture, from the live music that pulses from the Asbury Lanes bowling alley to the farmers’ markets, to a themed doughnut shop called Purple Glaze that creates a new heavy-metal doughnut each week. A Mötley Crüller for breakfast, perhaps?
But as this Victorian-era beach city has finally blossomed into a full-throated economic revival, a rising food culture begins to take center stage. It’s closer to Philadelphia than Cape May. But this is a New York-centric Shore town. And another “B” word — Brooklyn — hovers reflexively over conversations framing the gentrification that’s energizing the dining scene, for better or worse.
Asbury still has a handful of worthy classics that speak to its roots, such as Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant, or the marvelously unpretentious Frank’s Deli & Restaurant that certifies this 1.6-square-mile city of 16,000 residents as the pork roll sandwich capital of the world. Immigrant communities add the international flavor of authentic Mexican food at La Tapatia and Haitian meat pies from Tijo’s Kreyol Kitchen. The new Ada’s Gojjo may be the only restaurant in America that specializes in both Ethiopian and Dominican cuisines.
But a sizable group of the new restaurant players reanimating the once-desolate downtown strips along Cookman and Bangs Avenues are indeed emissaries of the “Brooklyn diaspora,” having found an affordable urban landscape on the rise to plant dining dreams they could no longer afford in ever-upscaling New York.
“Asbury Park was not on the [initial] road trip,” says Shanti Mignogna of the Talula’s pizzeria, a native Californian who left Brooklyn in 2010 with then-boyfriend Steve Mignogna on a nationwide search to build their business. A friend in real estate urged them toward Asbury Park and she was reluctantly impressed. “It reminded me of home because it had this surfer-punk-rock vibe, a little bit of grittiness, and a downtown district right on the beach. We saw Café Volan with great coffee, a boutique about to open, and young people here doing cool things — but no place to get good bread. This could be our spot.”
Other restaurants, such as Moonstruck and Brickwall Tavern had already established momentum. And since Talula’s opened in 2013, it has become a vital hub alongside other restaurants specializing in toast, Korean tacos, small plates, organic juices, fancy sandwiches, a craft distillery and sprawling beer hall. The Mignognas’ second restaurant, Modine, opened last year as a collaboration with two other friends from their Brooklyn days.
But locals such as Laura Brahn say the Brooklyn comparisons are getting old. She grew up in nearby Spring Lake Heights (“when Asbury was the place we weren’t supposed to head”), moved to New York for several years, then returned to open a popular bruncherie in Asbury Park called Cardinal Provisions with business partner Grace Crossman: “We’re our own thing! I felt like a speck of dust in Brooklyn, but here I know my neighbors, my clients, and it’s still a small town as much as it presents as a city. We’ve got every walk of life. This isn’t a cookie-cutter beach town.”
She concedes that Asbury Park has already begun to lose some of the funky, alternative art scene edge she experienced in her teens, when she met her husband at the Asbury Lanes while he was playing in a band.
“It’s got different owners now,” she says of the bowling alley-concert hall, “a totally different, more corporate vibe. … At the same time, I’m happy to see a little money in town.”
The acceleration of big-time investments, though, with such luxury projects as the huge new Ocean Club hotel-condo and recent interest from chains in the downtown district, is familiar to the wary ex-Brooklynites who’ve seen this cycle before.
“For a while the motto was ‘the more the merrier,’” says Shanti Mignogna. “There was no competitive nature, and now it’s all of a suddenly like, oh, our five-year leases are coming up, rents going up and it’s all changing.”
But lifelong residents such as Taka co-owners David Martocci and Bill Kessler, who went to Asbury High School in the 1960s before the 1970 race riots and a seismic string of developments (new highways, amusement parks, malls) drained the downtown, see the city’s resurgence and flourishing dining scene through a much longer lens.
“I know people who invested 40 years ago, but their buildings collapsed while they were waiting for the revival. It just took a long time to start,” says Martocci, whose 220-seat Japanese restaurant, located across from where Springsteen launched his career, is now consistently packed. “As late as five years ago, some people still wouldn’t come into the city. But now? We’ve made so much progress we’re stuck in town!’”
If there were ever any question as to whether Asbury Park is the center of the pork-roll-loving universe, breakfast at Frank’s will put that to rest. Not only does this old-school deli hand-cut its Taylor pork roll extra thick, all the breads — including the poppy-speckled kaiser rolls for its iconic pork roll, egg and cheese — also are house-baked the way Joseph Maggio’s father, Frank, did when he opened in 1960.
That commitment to scratch essentials, from fresh doughnuts to the seeded sub rolls (go for the No. 4 Italian) and house-roasted meats (that corned beef hash!) would have elevated Frank’s even in the golden age of diner-delis. But now that the genre has become seriously endangered, Frank’s is the kind of unpretentious, quality-driven institution that should be celebrated as a cultural treasure. And Joseph knows that hands-on continuity is key. That’s why he’s insisted on cooking all the eggs for the last 47 years, a job he now shares with son, T.J.: “Nobody else cooks the eggs. It’s very particular how people want their eggs.”
The idea of tucking a carefully folded Western omelette onto a fresh onion roll is genius. But don’t miss the “Friday omelette,” an unexpectedly delicious combo of peppers, tomatoes and cheese dusted with garlicky oregano that has roots in the days when Asbury’s Italian community avoided meat on Fridays. But like so many other bygone pleasures of diner tradition, Joseph notes, “we serve it every day.” Frank’s Deli and Restaurant, 1406 Main St., Asbury Park, 732-775-6682; franksdelinj.com
This 50-seat cafe feels like the next-gen counterpart to Frank’s. It’s the three-year-old creation of two local chefs, Laura Brahn and business partner Grace Crossman, who returned home after time in New York to create a hip brunch haven that fans routinely wait an hour or more to experience. Among my favorite bites, and a perfect nibble while waiting, was Cardinal’s new-school spin on the pork roll, egg and cheese — inside croissant dough dusted with everything spice. A nice sweet option is the sugar-dusted xuixo, a Catalan croissant with lemon cream. The “weird hash” of roasted seasonal vegetables is a popular choice for regulars(unfortunately, mostly sweet potatoes on our visit).
But Cardinal’s best moves channel pure indulgence, such as the “pasta for breakfast” of fettuccine lavished in an egg-rich sauce with smoky bacon that convinced me carbonara is the best way to start the day. The fried chicken and waffles feels more like a mid-day indulgence, but I understand why it’s worshiped; it’s a tall stack of crispy bird towering over a sugar-encrusted Liège waffle drizzled with herbed yogurt, hot sauce and sweet maple-poblano relish. I would have liked a second cup of coffee or even one water refill to wash that savory bonanza down. Our disinterested young server made few appearances. But the freshness of Cardinal’s new-school appeal was still obvious. I’d wait in line for a meal again. Cardinal Provisions, 513 Bangs Ave, Asbury Park,732-898-7194; crdnal.com
Asbury Park has a healthy obsession with Neapolitan-style pizza, from the warehouse-sized Porta (which has a so-so branch in Center City), to Medusa, whose wood-fired menu and open garage door space is at the top of my list for our next visit. Our first taste of Asbury’s current pizza generation was a satisfying lunch at Talula’s, whose wood-clad room lined with community tables evokes the industrial style that inspired co-owners (and Brooklyn refugees) Shanti and Steve Mignogna to open five years ago. It’s since become an anchor of the downtown resurgence, bolstered by a bar serving local beers, cocktails and an all-natural wine list.
Shanti resists the Neapolitan pizza label, since the restaurant’s concept was built around sourdough, also used for their sandwiches. But there’s a quick-fired puff to these soft, heat-blistered crusts that lands closest to that genre, with a complex savor that helps the toppings pop. The Beekeeper’s Lament is the can’t-miss choice with a spicy-sweet combo of honey-drizzled soppressata and milky house-pulled mozzarella. But chalkboard specials can also be memorable, with such fleeting whimsies as the spring pie featuring fiddlehead ferns, radishes, preserved lemon, and a broken egg that harmonized the unconventional cheeses of Comté and mascarpone. Flavorful salads like the sweet beets with citrus over whipped feta highlight Talula’s embrace of local produce. But they’re a virtuous prelude for one of Asbury Park’s ultimate indulgences: glazed cider doughnuts that puff with sourdough levain beside a “latte” pouf of espresso-whipped cream. Talula’s, 550 Cookman Ave #108, Asbury Park,732-455-3003; talulaspizza.com
The Mignognas’ follow-up to Talula’s is a collaboration with Brooklyn friends, chef Chris Davin and Jill Meerpohl, that highlights both the great ambition and room to grow in Asbury’s restaurant coming of age. Modine, named for Meerpohl’s grandmother, found a grand space for its modern Southern concept with this tall-ceilinged 19th-century room, once a post office and bank, rehabbed with 150 seats, lush plants, and tall windows that pour sunlight over tiled floors and swanky leather booths.
The setting and drinks are right, whether you get a natural wine or such smart cocktail as the Carolina Cold Brew, which has a warming bourbon kick and chicory twang. The menu, though, was uneven, with a startling lemon sourness in the chicken and (pasty) dumplings soup, too little smoke on the sous-vide ribs, and a dry whoopie pie with too many flourishes (peanut butter icing and bananas Foster sauce) that was less than the sum of its parts. But for every hiccup, Modine produced a gem, such as the hush puppies Jersey-fied with local scallops, or the creamy Anson Mills grits bowl with greens and plancha-crisped snapper fillets. Modine’s ace draw, however, was one of the best things I ate in Asbury Park: a whole chicken that’s smoked, brined in buttermilk pickle juice, then fried to a juicy crisp with a side of chile-spiced honey and some of the flakiest biscuits north of Dixie. A reservation-worthy chicken if there ever was one. Modine, 601 Mattison Ave, Asbury Park, 732-893-5300; modineasbury.com
Sushi was still exotic for Asbury Park when caterers David Martocci and Bill Kessler teamed-up with Kyushu-born chef Takahiro Hirai for their first hit version of Taka in 2005: “People would call to ask if the chicken was cooked,” Martocci said. Their leap four years ago to a splashy new location on Cookman Avenue didn’t necessarily push any new culinary boundaries. But with indoor-outdoor seating for 220, a bar lit by bubble lights, and a moody decor partitioned with lantern walls and sake casks, Taka 2.0 gave a stylish vote of confidence to Asbury’s downtown revival.
Our food was a solid, if predictable, selection of dishes. But attention to detail and quality made for an enjoyable meal, from the handmade gyoza, whose pork stuffings were sweet with cabbage, to the gingery soy ribs and sweet-spiced Japanese curry bowl, studded with shrimp. The sushi, meanwhile, rose on the integrity of well-cooked sushi rice, which has a slight vinegar tang, and highlighted each pristine slice of nigiri fish. It also helped contain complicated maki such as the popular Ju-San roll from veering into chaos, despite its multiple fish, crunch and contrasting sauces. More discriminating sushi purists should look to the specials page, where less common fish such as giant horse mackerel, cherry blossom sea salmon, and kampachi with torched orange are the nightly sashimi province of chef Dan “the Sushi Man” Yoon. Taka’s sustained success, it seems, reflects a rare ability to please everyone. Taka, 660 Cookman Ave, Asbury Park, 732-775-1020; takaasbury.com
While downtown Asbury Park rapidly evolves into something new, time has stood still around the old-school red gravy pots of Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant. Owner Diane Marrucca, who opened this white-tablecloth destination 35 years ago with her (now-departed) husband, Jimmy, refuses to even change the brand of plum tomatoes (Nina) that get patiently simmered into the balanced sauce that anchors the menu of Italian American favorites.
Many of the pastas are homemade, including the supple sheets that line Jimmy’s outstanding lasagna, separating creamy layers of ricotta from the tangy sauce hearty with crumbled sausage. The irresistible loaves of Staten Island table bread are turned into crumbs that are the secret to many dishes, from the baked clams oreganata to the delicately crusted veal parm. At dinner, don’t miss the limited supply of crumb-stuffed artichokes, cooked to a recipe from Danny DeVito’s aunt Buffy, who worked at Jimmy’s for many years. DeVito is one of the many stars, from Joe Pesce to Paul McCartney and Springsteen, who’ve eaten here. But such veteran servers as Glen Van treat everyone like VIPs, guiding us to highlights we might have missed, such as Diane’s signature salad dressing, an eggless Caesar that lit the simple house salad; or the fried sausage with peppery broccoli rabe. I almost reflexively dismissed the dessert tray, too, until Van convinced us otherwise. After one fluffy forkful of that wonderfully retro banana cream pie, I was glad he did. Jimmy’s timeless appeal endures. Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant, 1405 Asbury Ave., 732-774-5051; jimmysitalianrestaurant.com
I have no idea whether Ada’s Gojjo is the only restaurant in America serving Dominican mofongo and Ethiopian doro wot with equal billing. But its origin is unique. Owner Adanech Asghebom always wanted to be a chef. But having moved to California as a young Ethiopian refugee, she followed her father’s wishes to become an accountant, instead. When she finally realized her dream, the tiny restaurant she first bought in Long Branch had been known for Dominican cuisine. So, fearing Ethiopian food too unfamiliar to sustain her business, she taught herself to make tostones, pernil and fried chuletas so convincingly that Ada’s Latin Flavor became a hit.
The recent move to a much larger, prettier BYOB space in Asbury Park became an opportunity to broaden her audience. And while the empanadas are delicious, I’d make my meal out of an injera crepe-lined platter topped with vividly seasoned mounds of the Ethiopian cuisine that is her birthright. The Berbere spice that signals the DNA of so many dishes here is blended by her mother, and its distinctive blend of chile heat and aromatics — ginger, fenugreek, cardamom and cloves — infuses the deeply caramelized onion gravy of the stewed chicken doro wot. It kisses the lentil soup; and transforms Ada’s special tibs, cubed beef in tomatoes glossed with rosemary butter. Gingery lentils. Tender collards sweet with garlic beckon. Rip off a piece of spongy injera to take a flavorful pinch of them all. Then there’s Dominican flan and tres leches for dessert. Ada’s Gojjo, 1301 Memorial Dr., Asbury Park, NJ 07712; 732-222-5005; adagojjo.com
Neither gentrification nor vacation can really succeed without serious coffee. And this town has some good options, including the Asbury Park Roastery whose Boardwalk branch makes a whipped coffee shake that’s definitely beach ready. I was most impressed, though, by Café Volan, a spare little coffee house and diverse community hub on Bangs Avenue launched by three surfers eight years ago. The high-quality beans come from sister company Maiden Coffee Roasters and trends toward accessible medium roasts, such as the chocolatey house espresso that’s good solo or in milk. Café Volan, 510 Bangs Ave,, 732-455-3399; cafevolan.com
Purple Glaze, attached to the Old Glory Tattoo Co., channels Asbury Park’s indie rock-and-roll spirit, from the Hendrix-homage name (“my music era,” says owner Jacki Sharpe, a retired college administrator) to the heavy metal-themed doughnuts created weekly by son Wesley. The cake doughnuts have a nice crunch, with natural flavors and beautifully customized toppings. I loved the chocolate PB&J flavor, but the fruity metal special I devoured, the “Apri(cult)uralist” in honor of Whitechapel, was also worth turning up the volume. Purple Glaze, 516 Summerfield Ave, Asbury Park, 732-361-5308; purpleglazedonuts.com
Michael Kane’s brewery is just eight years old, but it’s a senior beer citizen in New Jersey, where the exploding scene recently surpassed 100 breweries. There are several in Asbury proper, including Dark City and Asbury Park Brewery. But it’s worth the short drive to the obscure industrial park in neighboring Ocean Township to Kane’s expanding brewery and tasting room. You’ll find the refreshingly hazy and crisp Head High IPA that is Kane’s widely available hop-forward flagship. But the best reason to visit are brewery-only special releases, such as the barrel-aged A Night to End All Dawns imperial stout, a soon-to-be-released series of fruited barrel-aged wild ales and delicious one-offs such as Half-Timbered, a malty bock that gets woody complexity from finishing time in bourbon barrels. Kane Brewing Co. 1750 Bloomsbury Ave, Ocean Township, 732-922-8600; kanebrewing.com