“Excuse me... Miss?! Can you please get our waitress? Could we at least get some forks and knives to eat these pancakes?”
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday in June, but as resurgent crowds fill the beachside tables at Sand House Kitchen in Ocean City, I can already hear the frustrated refrain of this summer’s theme song: “Help Wanted!”
I’ll take that tune any day over 2020′s “Mask-Up or Act Up” nightmare. But we’re going to need patience — and maybe even a robot assist — before we recover any sense of normalcy in dining at the Shore. That’s how the Yoa family ended up leasing Peanut, the robotic food-runner that glides through their Island Grill dining room in Ocean City, toting plates on her built-in tray racks and pausing if obstructed to say, “Please move, I’m trying to work. If I don’t get to work, I’m going to get fired.”
Little chance of that, says co-owner Allison Yoa, who’s managed to hire barely two-thirds of her usual 75 employees and postponed their usual breakfast and lunch services: “Peanut’s not a replacement for a human being, and she’s not cheap. I’d much rather give that money to a person.”
The good news: The humans I’ve encountered who are working in Shore restaurants this summer are giving it their all. In many cases, local talents have returned to the region due to the pandemic, launched personal projects, and hunkered down with family and friends to make their dreams a reality. From a new roadside market that’s Jersey oyster heaven to a tasting menu Cape May splurge, stellar destinations for handmade Mexican food and a stylishly revamped beachside porch for breakfast burritos and poke, this summer’s Shore dining crop has already produced several tasty highlights worth the wait.
Next Sunday: Craig LaBan checks out more new restaurants in Long Beach Island, Ventnor, Avalon, and Wildwood.
The roadside produce stand is a South Jersey staple. But I’ve never encountered one as dreamy as Sweet Amalia Market & Kitchen, whose sunflower yellow façade is my beacon of most coveted flavors this summer. Not just for gorgeous produce from the farmland surrounding its perch along Route 40, but also for pristine Jersey shellfish and some of the most craveable sandwiches anywhere.
Oysters — fried, baked, and raw — are the prime draw, considering it’s named for co-owner Lisa Calvo’s Sweet Amalia oyster farm on the Delaware Bay. Prior to its reinvention, this building was used to sort Calvo’s harvest for delivery to Philadelphia restaurants — including Pub & Kitchen, where she first met chef Melissa McGrath. After a COVID detour brought McGrath back from a brief stint in San Francisco, where her hoagies helped earn national buzz for her friend’s wine shop, Palm City, she and Calvo decided to team up.
And the blackboard menu is chock-full of can’t-miss temptations for a feast at the outdoor picnic tables. There are buttery Sweet Amalias and briny Tucker Islands to choose from raw on the half-shell. But I also can’t resist them baked in garlicky bread crumbs with Calabrian chilies, cream, and anchovy. Then again, these mollusks fried in cornmeal on toasted brioche with celery root remoulade are as good as an oyster roll gets.
It turns out I’m obsessed with every sandwich here, from the clam strip roll with Nueske’s bacon, green garlic relish, and horseradish-dill aioli, to the chicken cutlet Caesar hoagie. I almost skipped the Italian because, hey, Philly’s got plenty. But, damn if McGrath didn’t cement her star status with one of the best Italians I’ve tasted, too, her seeded Sarcone’s roll artfully layered with mortadella, soppressata, and arugula fronds snowy with shaved Parmesan and dabbed with ‘Nduja aioli.
Did I mention the smoked fish chowder? The market shelves stocked with local vinegars, sauces and cheeses? The fresh tomato pies and flaky strawberry-rhubarb confections? The only problem with this roadside stand is that I may never leave. Sweet Amalia Market & Kitchen, 994 Harding Hwy. (Route 40), Newfield, 856-839-2478; sweetamalia.com/market
A few months ago, the idea of lingering over a multicourse tasting menu inside an intimate dining room wouldn’t have been on my wish list. Such a culinary adventure at the beach, where dinners trend crab-cake casual, would have seemed even more unlikely.
But there’s something unexpectedly beautiful about taking a seat on the breezy Victorian porch of Jardin at the Hugh in Cape May, where manager Candace Carpio warmly welcomes guests with a chilly bottle of lovely local rosé from Hawk Haven. The 1883-era building, the former Blue Rose Inn B&B, has been handsomely renovated with black-and-white style by new owners Sandy and John Vizzone, a former creative director for Ralph Lauren.
The inventive plant-forward menu from chef Michael Schultz is what flipped the gastronomic “on” switch inside me I’d nearly forgotten existed. From the moment I nibbled his sugared beet pâte de fruit with fermented mulberries and a shoyu-glossed slice of watermelon “maki,” I was reminded how much I’ve missed savoring food for art’s sake, especially when it’s well-rendered without too much pretense. Somehow, Schultz’s elaborate “Chef’s Day at the Beach” of scallops over edible sand (powdered nuts and fruit scraps) beside a sweet-dark “ocean” of fermented blueberries was both whimsical and delicious.
Jardin is an overdue homecoming for Schultz, 47, who grew up in Cape May and worked in Philadelphia kitchens (Le Bec-Fin, Tangerine) before his years as executive chef for M. Night Shyamalan’s company and a decade in South Florida, where he ran restaurants for former Sixers’ president Pat Croce. There are some fine proteins on Jardin’s $115 prix-fixe menu, including a rosy duck over hazelnut granola and parsnip puree. But Schultz’ personal passion as a vegan shines through with dairy-free dishes that were highlights, from a convincingly silky “faux-gras” to a sunchoke foam that vividly amplified the grill’s smoke on seasonal purple asparagus.
Was I so delighted simply because I’d not eaten such an ambitious meal since before the pandemic? No, this was good. And Jardin at the Hugh was exactly the special-occasion splurge I didn’t know I needed. Jardin at the Hugh, 653 Washington St., Cape May, 609-435-5458; thehughinn.com
Marco Rendon was reluctant to jump on the birria trend. The 35-year-old had spent 15 years cooking mostly Italian-centric food around Atlantic City at places owned by Luke Palladino, Wolfgang Puck, and Michael Symon and he’d now hoped to pay homage to flavors more traditional to his Oaxacan roots.
His wife, Karina Cipriani, suggested he try birria as a pop-up out of their home — and it took off. With little more than Instagram to advertise, Rendon sold enough braised beef tacos with consommé off his back porch during the winter months to open his own restaurant in May. Now he’s stuffing pizza boxes with a dozen warm birria tacos, guacamole, chips and salsa, and they’re flying out the front door of a former Sack O’ Subs in Northfield. Bringing one home and lifting the lid unleashes a fragrant steam that is an instant fiesta.
“I’m a birria guy now because that’s what made me,” says a now-converted Rendon.
Of course, the birria craze is everywhere. But Rendon’s is worth the hype, his beef marinated overnight in dried chilies and bay, then slow-cooked to silken shreds before it’s griddled with cheese inside tortillas and served alongside a dunking broth with profoundly earthy savor. There’s a stewed chicken version that’s equally delicious, and Rendon also sells a riff with ramen cooked inside that consommé, an uber-trend mash-up I was skeptical of — but ended up loving.
Rendon’s menu has expanded, with housemade tortillas cradling mahi-mahi or shredded oyster mushrooms lavished in al pastor spice for a smart veggie option. There’s also nod to his wife’s Colombian heritage with patacones, the flattened plantains fried crisp and piled high with hogao-sauced beef or shrimp with aromatic chorizo.
It’s the birria guy’s secret weapon.
“All the Colombians now know,” he said, “the patacones are our hidden gem.”
Taqueria Rendon, 201 Tilton Rd. Unit 2, Northfield, 609-568-5588; on Instagram @taqueria_rendon
Any meal tastes better with your toes in the sand. That’s why I’ve always had a fondness for the little brunch shack nestled between the dunes at the northern end of Ocean City. To my dismay, the long-running Northend Beach Grill closed due to a fire just weeks after my last visit in 2018. But the shack is thankfully now back under new ownership, the fast-growing HMRX Group, which has revived it as Sand House Kitchen with an updated style I recognize from its Dockside Kitchen and Drip ‘N Scoop.
The porch-ringed shanty has been lightly rehabbed ― its electricity still shorts out whenever they use a waffle iron, and there’s no public restroom, which is inconvenient considering they’ve added enough beachfront tables to seat 150.
The most obvious changes are in the menu, pricier than its predecessor but also featuring better ingredients and more scratch cooking, from the hand-cut home fries to the omelets (”we actually crack eggs here,” says executive chef Roseann Gotta). There are seafood upgrades available to lobster-top your burgers and avocado toast. Tacos scattered with tropical fruit salsa, blackened mahi sliders and poke bowls have also surged with next-gen diners over old-school beach grill favorites, says Gotta, who also says the somewhat random Hawaiian touches (fried SPAM!) reflect owner Robert Idell’s passion.
I loved my hearty breakfast burrito, whose fluffy eggs were ribboned with thick-cut bacon, followed by a coconut-pineapple French toast that was essentially a breakfast dessert. I leaned into lighter fare at lunch with a bountiful seafood Cobb. Some recipes still need tweaks, like the pasty pancakes that stuck to the roof of my mouth — although it could have been the artificial pancake syrup Gotta says has since been upgraded to real maple.
Improvements are happening in real-time. One morning the kitchen won’t accommodate a gluten-free request, two days later it’s stocking gluten-free bread. And the cheerful young staff is trying hard, promptly bringing breakfast at my second visit, yes, even with the silverware to eat it. Sand House Kitchen, 9 Beach Rd., Ocean City, 609-938-9070; sandhousekitchen.com
Ruben Nuñez considers his return to Cape May’s Promenade a homecoming. He essentially grew up there as a teenager cooking alongside his late father at Henry’s on the Beach, where they’d crank out hundreds of pancake breakfasts then serve hundreds more fried seafood combos a day to this resort’s tourist trade.
But both Nuñez and Cape May have evolved. Nuñez, 33, is now an established restaurateur who just opened the second branch of El Pueblo, a 5-year-old taqueria in North Cape May that’s wildly popular with locals both within and beyond the area’s growing Mexican community. Judging from the crowds already clamoring for one of the four shady boardwalk tables in front of takeout-centric Pueblo 2, the converted pizzeria Nuñez recently took over just a few doors down from the old Henry’s space (now Mermaids), Cape May’s visitors are eager to embrace Nuñez’ uncompromising takes on his family’s Oaxacan recipes. Many are prepped by his tireless mother, Lucia Martinez.
Her chorizo remains among my favorites, its guajillo-scented crumbles almost fluffy over crispy masa sope rounds. And there are many other specialties I crave, from the tangy shrimp cocktail and chunky fresh guacamole to chilaquiles doused in red mole and any of the flavorful marinated meats available as tacos over Nuñez’s handmade tortillas. Tender lengua. Fat-crisped chunks of carnitas. Roasty bits of chile-flared al pastor studded with charred pineapple. Or the hearty campechanos combo of chorizo, steak and chicharrones, which Nuñez loves to amp further with a fried egg and lavish over a bountiful rice bowl that will put Chipotle’s burrito bowls to shame — a surprise hit at the original El Pueblo, too.
“My Mexican customers in North Cape May didn’t initially want to get the rice bowls because they thought they were too Americanized,” he said. “But now, guess what: They love them too.”
El Pueblo Taqueria 2, 730 Beach Ave., Cape May, 609-600-1107; elpueblotaqueria.com