Pack your bags! In honor of life’s most delicious highways, we give you Hit the Road, Snack, our travel guide of things to eat, see, and do this summer from coast to coast. This week, Assistant Editor Erin Alexander teamed up with Buick and their new Enclave Avenir to drive—and taste—the Anthony Bourdain Food Trail in New Jersey with her longtime road trip buddy: her dad.
"And vacation over, as we headed home to our regular beds, our daily lives of school and homework and ordinary things. Maybe my little brother, maybe I, would wake up and look out the window at the night sky and suddenly it would fill with stars and golden mist, and we'd pretend for a second we were somehow deep inside the Milky Way, a million winking lights, but we knew where we really were. We were almost home."
That's how Anthony Bourdain, in a way only he could, describes New Jersey at the outset of the 2015 Parts Unknown episode dedicated to his home state. The late chef, writer, and television host always started this way: He pulled you right in.
A few weeks after his death, the state of New Jersey announced a proposal to establish the "Anthony Bourdain Food Trail"—which would include the 10 spots he visited on Parts Unknown—as a way to honor his legacy and to celebrate the culinary excellence of the Garden State.
Earlier this year, it was unanimously approved. News of the the trail was everywhere. That night, I watched the New Jersey episode again and, as ever, was pulled right in: into the storytelling, into wherever he was going.
No matter where Bourdain was—diving for dubiously lethargic octopus in Sicily, sharing tahdig at a family's home in Iran, slurping bun cha noodles across from President Obama in Vietnam—it always felt like he took us with him. Which is what makes it even more special that, even though we may never get to experience the world through his words again (except by giving his books another read or the old episodes a fresh watch), there's a trail out there offering a tangible way to at least taste one small part of it—his favorite part.
I didn't want to traverse the entire state, through Fort Lee and Camden and Atlantic City and Asbury Park, all by myself. So I called the one person I knew I could count on to come with me: my dad.
My mom likes to call my dad and me twins. We share many traits, but we've always bonded most over our seemingly bottomless appetites and curiosity for the world—its people, its nooks and crannies, and of course, its food. We loved going on trips together, just the two of us, though it had been awhile since we'd taken one (the last time was when we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu before I went off to college).
My dad also counts himself a fan of Bourdain's work, and would always watch Parts Unknown in the living room with me, whether it was a new episode or a repeat. He admired the way Bourdain brought "a unique philosophical perspective to food that focused on how it reflects what is common and good among us all."
After a bit of planning, the trip was on. I mapped out our route for efficiency (basically it was one big loop) and estimated it would take at least two days, maybe three, to hit every restaurant without falling into a gluttonous stupor. In May, on a long weekend when there was a relative lull in his otherwise grinding work schedule, he flew up to New York City the night before we'd hit the road.
The next day, I left work a bit early and met him at a parking garage in Chelsea where we'd pick up our ride. Buick offered to lend me a car for this excursion, and it proved to be a most useful road trip companion.
A flurry of rain on our walk there left us a bit soaked, but our first stop on the trail was only 30 or 40 minutes away (just across the river in Fort Lee) and the sun was starting to reemerge. I hopped into the driver's seat—my dad would be relegated to passenger-only status on this trip, a first for him—and put the address in the navigation: Hiram's Roadstand.
"I could really go for a friggin' hot dog," my dad said as we zipped through an unusually empty Lincoln Tunnel. Luckily, we were en route to hot dog heaven in Fort Lee, a town Bourdain described as having "a joky history of corruption" (remember Bridgegate?).
Hiram's Roadstand (1345 Palisade Ave, Fort Lee) has been around since 1932 and hasn't changed much since. Which is to say, they've been turning out top-notch hot dogs for a very long time. We both got the same thing: a chili cheese dog with a can of Coca-Cola.
The dogs, true to Bourdain's word, are indeed amazing: salty, tender meat (who cares what kind), encased in a fried, crispy tube, over two slices of American cheese, and topped with an easygoing chili. You can finish it in about three bites (two, if you're my dad), but that's just enough to get the hit of nostalgia that's been keeping this place packed for decades. It's also enough to tide you over on the near two-hour drive to Camden.
My best friend's parents live in Philadelphia, and are rightly quite passionate about their city's claim to fame: the Philly cheesesteak. But just across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge is a spot that, despite my loyalties, had me seriously reconsidering where the best cheesesteak lies.
Donkey's Place (1223 Haddon Ave, Camden), much like the boxer after which it is named (Leon "Donkey" Lucas), throws a few curveballs. It's set on a corner in Camden, which one recent headline dubbed the "Most Dangerous City" in the state. Inside, though, was a lively bar with with some of the friendliest people we'd meet on the entire trip. Oh, and the best food.
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Donkey's cheesesteaks are most notably different from the Philadelphia variety in that they come on a round poppy seed Kaiser roll, though the absence of Cheez Whiz is also important (they use American cheese, our server told us). Just off the bar is the main attraction: a massive flat-top grill packed with glorious, sizzling piles of sliced steak, mountains of soft, browned onions (doused in a special seasoning that almost tastes like French onion soup), and toasted rolls.
I splattered mine with ketchup and tucked my way in, only stopping to take a sip of my beer (or a breath). Halfway through, our server asked us if it was our first time in, which, considering she knew almost everyone there on a first-name basis, I'm guessing was a bit obvious. My dad and I smiled, mouths full, nodding yes, and she pulled out a cow bell from under the bar and rang it loud. Everyone clapped for us and smiled right back—we were officially converted to the Jersey cheesesteak.
The drive from Camden to Atlantic City is quick (just 45 minutes) thanks to a 44-mile expressway that's pretty much a straight shot to the boardwalk and casinos. We checked into our room at Harrah's, with a sweeping view of what I lovingly like to think of as Little Vegas, and took a power nap to try and sleep off the pound of meat we'd just consumed. The weight of so many meals, in such quick succession, was starting to creep up on us already, but there were fresh oysters and lobster waiting for us at Dock's Oyster House downtown (2405 Atlantic Ave, Atlantic City).
Dock's is old-school Atlantic City (though it doesn't feel old), with a piano bar and massive, wood-vaulted ceilings that give you a glimpse of what the town was like during its heyday in the '40s and '50s. The fare is fresh and classic—we opted to split a dozen oysters (briny and pure), the clam chowder, and a broiled lobster stuffed with buttery lump crab meat. Yeah, yeah, I know we said we were "full," but when a gorgeous two-pound lobster is staring you in the face, you just have to say yes.
We woke up early Saturday morning to drive back to Camden (45 minutes on the expressway felt like a breeze as we listened to my oldies playlist over bluetooth) to head to Tony & Ruth's Steaks (837 N 8th St, Camden) for breakfast. According to Google, it's open every day (except Sunday) from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., but when we got there, the place was definitely closed.
We made the quick decision to go over the bridge for a bite at one of my standbys in Old City Philadelphia called Cafe Olé (yes, this trip was all about Jersey, but these were special circumstances). I ordered their specialty—warm, spicy shakshuka served with fresh-baked bread and olive oil-drenched feta dip—while my dad, ever the light eater, downed a cheesy croissant sandwich and maple cupcake.
After breakfast, we walked up and down 3rd Street, making a pitstop at one of my favorite shops in the area, a tasting room–meets–bar supply store called Art in the Age, before heading back to Atlantic City.
There's a lot of nostalgia on this road trip, but you'll find its biggest display on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Once known as a glamorous summer destination for city dwellers, complete with amusements, beauty pageants, and parades, the Boardwalk has since become something, well, a little different.
Peppered in between classic spots likes James' Salt Water Taffy (1519 Boardwalk, Atlantic City), a century-old confectioner where you'll find every flavor of taffy you can think of, you'll also find psychic shops, massage parlors, and neon T-shirt emporiums.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't come here—there's still plenty to do, and plenty of old-fashioned fun to be had. My dad and I spent most of the afternoon strolling along the miles-long stretch. We stopped at the Steel Pier amusement park, where my dad hit a bullseye on one of the shooting games and won a stuffed tiger; the attendant's shocked expression made me think it'd been awhile since anyone had pulled that off.
Walking into the Knife and Fork Inn (3600 Atlantic Ave, Atlantic City), where it sticks out on a road in a section of the city where there's not much else, feels like you're stepping back into another era. Think: a rich mahogany bar, velvet curtains, and sectioned-off dining rooms that can't help but make you feel that someone is probably eating next to you. My dad and I met my best friend's dad, Frank, for dinner there. He and his wife are the ones who live in Philly, but they also have a house in a charming beach town that's just a short drive away.
Over excellent steakhouse classics, like wedge salad with blue cheese dressing and ribeye filet (plus locally caught blue crab that was deep-fried and out of this world), we talked about the city's history, especially the casino era.
Frank, who grew up coming to the area every summer, talked us through its ups and downs: the early days of gambling, the Trump era, and the rise—and steep decline—of Revel, a two billion–dollar casino that opened in 2012 and shuttered just two years later (after changing hands a few times, it now goes by Ocean Casino and Resort).
We capped off the night with a heavenly cranberry-walnut bread pudding and whipped banana cream pie, and a recommendation from Frank: If we were going to gamble (a love of poker is another trait my dad and I share), we had to go the Borgata; it was, he said, without a doubt the best in town.
Time works differently the second you step into a casino, and not just because there are no windows to give you any inkling of what time it might be; the adrenaline of maybe, possibly turning a hundred bucks into a thousand makes three hours feel like 30 minutes. Suddenly, it was 1 a.m. and we were ready to head home to Harrah's—but not without stopping at Tony's Baltimore Grill first (2800 Atlantic Ave, Atlantic City).
Open 24/7, Tony's Baltimore Grill serves up Italian-American comfort food, like spaghetti and meatballs and pizza, all day and all night long. You'll find the usual late-night crowd here, the bartender told me, and in the especially wee hours, dealers and casino workers just getting off there shifts. When he dropped off our cheese pizza, I had to ask him, "You've seen it all, right?" He smirked a bit (obviously this wasn't the first time this question had come up).
"I've seen more," he said.
For two people who went to sleep past 2 a.m. and ate practically two separate dinners, my dad and I were up astonishingly early. We checked out of the hotel right around 9 a.m. and set out on the last leg of the journey, toward breakfast (which at that point, I was not remotely hungry for).
The drive to Lucille's Country Cooking (1496 Main St, Barnegat) looks nothing like what I knew of New Jersey. Once you get close, you start to notice more pine trees and less of just about everything else. The trees are how this stretch of the state got its name: the Pine Barrens. There are signs along the way that tell you you're near a state park or wildlife refuge or campground, but it seems like this heavy stretch of forest will go on forever until you see Lucille's (and many cars parked out front) on the side of the road.
The place, though every seat was taken (minus two bar stools, which we grabbed), was apparently not as busy as usual thanks to the rain; normally, there's a line out the door. I ordered the strawberry pancakes with a side of bacon, while my dad went for a straightforward plate of just-right fried eggs, hash browns, and toast. Like most of the spots on this list, you get the sense right away that Lucille's is ingrained in the community—it's been family-run for years, and you can bet that if you come around often, they're going to remember your name.
In addition to a cup of their famous rice pudding (my dad promptly inhaled it the second we got in the car and called it "the best ever"), I took home a souvenir T-shirt emblazoned with the "Jersey devil." In the Parts Unknown episode, the Jersey devil is said to have the head of a horse, the wings of a bat, and hooves for feet, and to roam the Pine Barrens. For Lucille's, it's become something of a mascot; you can see a wooden carving of the legendary beast out front by the entrance, or pick up one of the T-shirts I got on your way out.
I won't lie to you, by the time we made it to Asbury Park, we were worn out—and absolutely, 100 percent stuffed. But this was the home of "The Boss" (aka Bruce Springsteen) and a classic Jersey sandwich: "Assertive layers of sliced ham, provolone, tomato, onions, shredded lettuce," as Bourdain described it. "And most important, your oil and vinegar that marries it all together into a soggy, glory vehicle of deliciousness."
Instead of sitting at the counter or in a booth at Frank's Deli (1406 Main St, Asbury Park), we opted to take this one to go and save it for when we got home. A little under two hours later, we were back in the same parking garage where it all began to bid farewell to our trusty Enclave; it had served us well. Back at my apartment, we flopped on the couch, exhausted. Time for the last meal.
My dad hadn't seen the New Jersey Parts Unknown episode in a while, so we flipped it on and split our sandwich. Having actually experienced the whole thing, we watched with a new perspective. I realized that Bourdain gets you as close as he can—to the tastes, to the experiences, to the people—without actually being there. But I think even he would agree that you're really missing out if that's as close as you ever get.
Kubel's (28 W 7th St, Barnegat Light), which would have been our last stop, was just finishing up a months-long renovation project when we took our trip, so we didn't get a chance to try the clams with drawn butter that defined Bourdain's summers as a kid.
"Summertime. You know that sound?" he asked his brother, Chris, as they dug into clam strips in one of Kubel's wooden booths. "Just out of the water, ears pressed up against the beach blanket, the squeak of bare feet on sand nearby, Classics illustrated comics waited for me back at the house."
I guess I'll just have to go back to Jersey.